Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets Saturday to protest last weekend's alleged election fraud and demand an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hold on power. In parliamentary elections last Sunday, Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev's United Russia party won an absolute majority that the opposition claims was exaggerated by ballot stuffing and other manipulation.
Police estimated that around 25,000 protesters gathered in Bolotnaya Square, a large open space across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. Organizers and anti-Kremlin lawmakers claimed the number of protesters stood between 50,000 and 80,000, making it the largest protest day the country has seen since Putin came to power in 2000.
The people there held signs with pictures of Medvedev and Putin saying, "Guys, it's time to go" and waved banners such as "The rats should go!" and "Swindlers and thieves - give us our elections back!"
Additional rallies took place in more than 50 other cities across Russia with at least 7,000 people taking to the streets in Russia's second city St. Petersburg. Organizers also reported 5,000 protesters in the industrial town of Chelyabinsk and up to 4,000 in nearby Yekaterinburg.
Although police normally crack down on unauthorized gatherings, authorities had permitted the protest in Moscow on condition the rally was relocated from central Revolution Square to Bolotnaya Square where access points could be easily controlled.
Some 50,000 riot police and troops were deployed to control the protest. Hundreds of security trucks and buses were parked around the city while helicopters patrolled the skies. Police also blocked the entrance to the Red Square with trucks. Less than 100 demonstrators were reported arrested nationwide, however, far less than the hundreds arrested in the days immediately after the December 4 election.
A test of Putin's popularity
Putin has been Russia's most popular and powerful politician for more than a decade and the parliamentary elections were meant to be a litmus test of Putin's decision to run again for president this coming March.
Putin was president until 2008 when term limits forced him out. After Medvedev took over the presidency, he then appointed Putin prime minister. Putin however, was still considered by most observers to be the more powerful of the two.
In September Putin and Medvedev announced their plan to swap roles, after which the independent polling agency the Levada Center found Putin's popularity dive.
While United Russia used to enjoyed a three-quarter majority in the Duma, the country's lower house of parliament, the party suffered a 15 percent drop in last weekend's vote. United Russia still holds an absolute majority of 52 percent of vote but the dramatic drop is widely being seen as a sign of discontent with Putin.
Video footage shot by ordinary Russians and distributed on YouTube appear to show ballot stuffing and other widespread election manipulation and have fueled the protests.
Putin publicly accepted the tight victory of his party, but accused US Secretary Hillary Clinton of inciting unrest by questioning the legitimacy of the vote.
Author: Holly Fox, Charlotte Chelsom-Pill (AP, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Andreas Illmer