Tens of thousands of flag-waving and chanting protesters in Moscow yesterday called for a disputed parliamentary election to be rerun and an end to Vladimir Putin's rule, increasing pressure on the Russian leader as he tries to win back the presidency.
The protesters shouted "Russia without Putin" and "New elections, new elections" as one speaker after another called for an end to Putin's 12-year domination of the country at the second big opposition rally in two weeks in central Moscow.
"Do you want Putin to return to the presidency?" novelist Boris Akunin asked from a large stage. Whistling and jeering, protesters chanted: "No!"
Witnesses said at least as many people turned out as at the last big Moscow rally, on December 10, to protest alleged vote-rigging in the December 4 election won by Putin's United Russia party.
Police said at least 28,000 attended the rally on Prospekt Sakharova. But one of the organizers, liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, put the crowd size at 120,000. "I see enough people to take the Kremlin and the White House (government headquarters ) right now!" anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who was released from jail just a few days ago and is seen by many protesters as the best chance to lead the anti-Putin opposition, said to loud cheers. "But we are a peaceful force, we won't do it - yet. But if the crooks and thieves continue trying to deceive us and lie to us, we will take [power] ourselves. It is ours!" Navalny said.
Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian Solidarity movement and a former Rusian deputy prime minister, said after the rally that the opposition plans to hold its next mass rally against the Putin regime in February.
Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally and former finance minister, who was fired by President Dmitry Medvedev over differences of opinion, made an unexpected appearance at yesterday's rally. He was booed by the crowd, after having expressed his "total admiration" for Putin in a recent interview. Kudrin called for new elections to the Duma in a year's time and warned of the "revolution" that could result unless the protesters held talks with the government.
The oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who has received Kremlin approval to run for president as a relatively liberal candidate against Putin, also showed up at the protest. "I came to protest the false elections," he said.
Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not attend the rally but he has urged Putin to follow his own example and step down. He said on Ekho Moskvy radio that if Putin stepped down now he would be remembered for the positive things he did during his 12 years in power.
Protesters held signs saying: "For Russia without Putin."
Others waved condoms blown up like balloons, mocking Putin for saying earlier this month that he had initially mistaken the protesters' white ribbons, pinned to their chests, for condoms.
One protester carried a poster showing a doctored portrait of Putin with a condom wrapped around his head.
Dozens of police trucks lined the city's main ring road nearby and the police blocked off roads around the protest site, but they did not intervene.
There was no immediate reaction to the protests from Putin but state and other tightly controlled television channels provided coverage of the rally, without any direct mention of the criticism of the 59-year-old prime minister.
The Kremlin has pledged to change the party registration procedure, a spokeswoman for Medvedev, Natalya Timakova, stated yesterday.
The draft bill to this effect is due to be approved by the lower and upper houses of parliament. It envisages a simplified registration procedure which will probably increase the number of political parties in the country.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now