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EURASIA > Thousands seek ‘Russia without Putin’ in streets

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After tens of thousands attend the biggest anti-government rally since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s government hints a softening tone against opposition

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Protesters wave a Red flag, as a symbol of 
revolution, as they march during a mass rally to protest against Putin’s government. AP photo

Protesters wave a Red flag, as a symbol of revolution, as they march during a mass rally to protest against Putin’s government. AP photo

Tens of thousands of people held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has experienced to criticize electoral fraud and demand an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule. 

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

Nonetheless, the prime minister seems to be in a weaker position than he was a week ago, before Russians voted in parliamentary elections. His United Party lost a substantial share of its seats, although it retains a majority.

The Dec. 10 historic demonstrations near the Kremlin saw more than 50,000 chant “Russia without Putin.” Elsewhere in Russia, some 7,000 protesters assembled in St. Petersburg, and demonstrations ranging from a few hundred people to a thousand took place in more than 60 other cities. Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide, a notably low number for a force that characteristically produces quick and harsh action against opposition gatherings.

A statement released late Dec. 10 by Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the day’s protests were held by people “displeased” with the elections but said there were also demonstrations in support of the elections in recent days. “We respect the point of view of the protestors, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them,” the statement said. “The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner.” 
United Russia official Andrei Isayev acknowledged Dec. 10 that the opposition “point of view is extremely important and will be heard in the mass media, society and the state.” Yet the concessions may be only a way of buying time in hope the protests will wither away. The opposition says the next large Moscow protest will be held Dec. 24.

Unexpected state media coverage

State television – scorned by the Internet community for its blanket ban on coverage of post-election unrest – took the unusual step the evening of Dec. 10 of leading its news program with Moscow rally coverage. “So does anyone have complaints left about NTV after yesterday’s 7 p.m. [news] broadcast?” the television station asked in an unusual message posted on its official Twitter feed.

And the official RIA Novosti news agency wrote a special analysis titled “Saturday’s protests should convince the authorities to listen to the voice of the people.” Some in the Russian opposition interpreted this as an early sign of change while a Kremlin source told the popular gazeta.ru news site the decision to run the mostly-balanced reports was taken personally by Dmitry Medvedev.

The Kremlin source said Medvedev had also instructed the Moscow police to handle the protesters “extremely gently” after seeing more than 1,000 activists bundled away by riot police the previous week. But dozens of people were still arrested in Russian regions as officials scrambled to come up with a response to the re-emergence of political activity in cities that had stayed quiet since the early post-Soviet times. Analysts said rapid social change and the Internet’s growing penetration in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard after a decade in which they could mold public opinion with the help of state-controlled media. 

Compiled from AFP and AP stories by the Daily News staff.

December/12/2011

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