Anti-Putin Rage Swells Into Mass Rallies

Demonstrations also held outside of Russia, particularly in countries with large Russian immigrant communities, including Israel

Tens of thousands of people yesterday held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has ever seen, to criticize electoral fraud and demand an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule.

In addition to demonstrations in more than 60 Russian cities, protests were also held outside of Russia, particularly in countries with large Russian immigrant communities. A few dozen people demonstrated in front of the Russian Embassy on Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Street to express solidarity with the protesters in Russia. They also challenged Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's declaration last week that the elections in his country of origin were "free, fair and democratic." One of the organizers of the demonstration, Alex Barabash, said "We can assume that Lieberman would like to have that kind of election here as well."

Moscow demonstration - AP - December 2011

Police showed surprising restraint and state-controlled television gave the nationwide demonstrations unexpected airtime, but there is no indication the opposition is strong enough to push for real change from Putin or his ruling party.

Nonetheless, the prime minister seems to be in a weaker position than he was a week ago, before the parliamentary elections. His United Russia party lost many of its seats, although it retains a majority.

The independent Russian election-observer group Golos said yesterday that United Party's majority was the result of falsification and international observers reported widespread irregularities.

The most dramatic of yesterday's protests saw a vast crowd jam an expansive Moscow square and adjacent streets. Although police estimated the crowd at 30,000, aerial photographs suggested far more and organizers' claims ranged upwards of 40,000.

Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide, a notably low number for a force that is characteristically quick to take harsh action against opposition gatherings.

The police restraint was one of several signs that conditions may be easing for the beleaguered opposition, at least in the short term. Although city authorities generally refuse opposition forces permission to rally or limit the gatherings to small attendance, most of the protests yesterday were sanctioned. In a surprise move, Moscow gave permission for up to 30,000 people to rally.

Just as striking, police allowed a separate unauthorized protest to take place in Revolution Square.

State-controlled television, which generally ignores or disparages opposition groups, broadcast footage not only of the Moscow protest - which was so big it would have been hard not to report - but in several other cities as well.

There were anti-Putin protests in seven cities in Germany, where an estimated 3.5 million emigrants from the former Soviet Union live. Dimitry, who immigrated to Israel before returning to Russia and moving to Berlin three years ago, told Haaretz he was demonstrating because "I care about what happens in Russia and am ashamed of today's Russia."

There were demonstrations in several other European states as well as in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, China and the United States.

The Moscow rally demanded the cancellation of the election results, the punishment for officials responsible for vote-rigging, registration of the opposition parties that were denied it, liberalization of the electoral law and holding new elections. The organizers urged protesters to brace for another rally in two weeks.

"We'll come again!" the crowd chanted.

United Russia official Andrei Isayev yesterday said the opposition "point of view is extremely important and will be heard in the mass media, society and the state."

A top official of the Russian social network Vkontakte said this week his company has been pressured by the Federal Security Service to block opposition supporters from posting. On Friday, he was summoned by the service for questioning.