Tens of thousands in anti-Putin protests

Huge crowds in Moscow defy Kremlin and 7,000 police to demand fresh elections after parliament votes to expel opposition politician

Tens of thousands of people marched across downtown Moscow yesterday in the first big protest in three months against President Vladimir Putin, a sign of the opposition's strength despite the Kremlin's efforts to muzzle dissent. Leftists, liberals and nationalists combined with students, teachers, gay activists and others on the capital's tree-lined boulevards, chanting "Russia without Putin!" and "We are the government!"

The protest remained peaceful as about 7,000 police officers stood guard along the route and a police helicopter hovered overhead. Last winter, the protest movement had fielded more than 100,000 people on the streets in massive protests against Mr Putin's election for a third presidential term.

Mr Putin has taken a tough line against the opposition since his inauguration in May, with new, repressive laws, arrests and interrogation of activists. In August, a court handed two-year prison sentences to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow's main cathedral. Some activists yesterday carried balloons with balaclava masks painted on – the band's trademark headwear.

The rally, which had received the required permit from authorities, appeared to be as big as the last protest in June, which also attracted tens of thousands. The organisers had spent days in tense talks with the city government over the protest route as the authorities tried to move it farther from the city centre. Such tense bargaining also preceded each of the previous opposition marches.

A protest on the eve of Mr Putin's inauguration ended in clashes with police. The Kremlin responded by arresting some participants and approving a new draconian law that raised fines 150-fold for unsanctioned protests. But then the authorities gave permission for a rally in June that proved peaceful.

Alexei Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption crusader and a driving force behind the opposition protests, urged the demonstrators to show resolve and keep the pressure on the Kremlin. "We must come to rallies to win freedom for ourselves and our children, to defend our human dignity," he said to cheers of support. "We will come here as to our workplace. No one else will free us but ourselves."

Hopes of a quick change that many protesters sensed during the winter have waned, but opposition supporters appeared ready to dig in for a long fight. "We have to defend our rights which we were deprived of, the right to have elections. We're deprived of honest elections and an honest government," said opposition activist Alexander Shcherbakov. "I'm opposed to illegitimate government and illegitimate elections."

A day before the rally, parliament expelled an opposition lawmaker who angered the Kremlin by joining the protest movement. The vote to oust Gennady Gudkov over allegations of running a business in violation of parliament rules – charges that Mr Gudkov called "a sham" – angered many, beefing up the protest. The vote deprived Mr Gudkov, a KGB veteran like the President, of his immunity from prosecution. His supporters fear he could be arrested.

His son, Dmitry Gudkov, also a lawmaker, said he hopes the Kremlin will not dare to put his father in prison after seeing the protests. "They will either have to think about serious reforms, or they will come to a very bad end," he said.

Valentina Merkulova, a teacher who participated in yesterday's protest, said: "It's necessary right now for all Russians to come out into the streets in order to show the regime that changes are needed in our country, and that without that our country can't develop.

"The most important thing is that, the more Russians come out, the less bloody the change of regime, but a change is necessary." (AP)

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