Putin supporters to stage giant Moscow rally
MOSCOW - Agence France- Presse
Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin examines military equipment and weapons during a visit to the Taman Motorized Infantry Brigade in Moscow on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. AP PhotoTens of thousands of Vladimir Putin supporters were to mass in Moscow on Thursday, seeking to prove his bid for the Russian presidency enjoys popular support despite an outburst of opposition protests.
Under the slogan "Protect the Country", Putin's supporters are to march along the Moscow river embankment before gathering inside the Luzhniki sports stadium for a gigantic rally ahead of the March 4 presidential vote.
Putin's aides have said that the incumbent prime minister may take part in the rally, which is being held at a venue used for Moscow's biggest football matches and rock concerts by the likes of U2, but have not confirmed his plans.
The event coincides with Russia's anual Defenders of the Fatherland public holiday, a militaristic celebration that in Soviet times commemorated the achievements of the Red Army and chimes with Putin's rhetoric about Russian might.
"We must ensure our sovereignty. No one should be able to stick their noses into our affairs," Putin said in typically macho comments to military commanders on Wednesday.
The meeting is organised by Putin's All Russian Popular Front (ONF), a new umbrella grouping of individuals, unions and businesses that emerged for the first time last year to mobilise support for his Kremlin bid.
According to the ONF, 40,000 people will take part in the initial march from 0730 GMT with 100,000 then assembling in Luzhniki for the culminating one-and-a-half-hour rally.
The event clearly aims to be a riposte to the three mass rallies staged by the opposition since December 4 parliamentary elections which were tarnished by allegations of widespread vote-rigging.
The opposition says that Putin's once impregnable popularity is plummeting, although his team insist the Russian strongman still enjoys the majority's support.
"The aim of the action is to express approval for the current political course and give a rebuff to forces who want to break down the country," the ONF said in a statement.
The pattern of competing protests trying to outdo each other is set to be repeated in the aftermath of the election, with both the opposition and pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) vowing mass actions.
Despite the protests, Putin is still widely expected to easily win the election, with the main intrigue focused on whether he will be able to win over 50 percent on March 4 and avoid a second round.
According to a projection by the state-run VTsIOM pollster based on its most recent poll, Putin should win 58.6 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest challenger, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, and three other candidates.
In a show of confidence, Putin has carried out almost no explicit campaigning, letting his allies represent him in television debates and not entering into the mudslinging between other candidates.
But he has been travelling round the country making a string of carefully-targeted announcements on domestic issues ranging from promoting the aircraft industry to raising police pay which seems a clear swoop for votes.
Putin announced in September he would be seeking a third term as Russian president after his four-year stint as prime minister, in a scheme cooked up with President Dmitry Medvedev who should in turn become government chief.
However none of the candidates standing against Putin is a prime mover in the protest movement which includes more alternative figures from outside the political system such as the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.