Anti-Putin protest draws tens of thousands

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 15 2012 11:26 a.m. MDT

MOSCOW — The first major protest against President Vladimir Putin after a summer lull drew tens of thousands of people, determined to show that opposition sentiment remains strong despite Kremlin efforts to muzzle dissent.

The street protests broke out after a December parliamentary election won by Putin's party through what observers said was widespread fraud, and they grew in strength ahead of Putin's effectively unopposed election in March to a third presidential term.

Huge rallies of more than 100,000 people even in bitter winter cold gave many protesters hope for democratic change. These hopes have waned, but opposition supporters appear ready to dig in for a long fight.

"We have to defend the rights that we were deprived of, the right to have elections. We were deprived of honest elections and an honest government," opposition activist Alexander Shcherbakov said. "I've come to show that and to demonstrate that the people are opposed. I'm opposed to the illegitimate government and illegitimate elections."

Leftists, liberals and nationalists mixed with students, teachers, gay activists and others as they marched down Moscow's tree-lined boulevards chanting "Russia without Putin!" and "We are the power here!" Many wore the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement.

About 7,000 police officers stood guard along the route of the march, and a police helicopter hovered overhead. A protest rally, held on a wide street named for the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, remained peaceful as it stretched into the evening. As the 10 p.m. deadline neared, a couple of hundred people were still on the street and police herded them toward a subway station. One of the opposition leaders, Sergei Udaltsov, was detained along with a handful of his supporters when he tried to lead a group of about 50 on a new protest march.

Putin has shown less tolerance for the opposition since his inauguration in May. New repressive laws have been passed to deter people from joining protests, and opposition leaders have been subject to searches and interrogations. In August, a court handed down two-year prison sentences to three members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow's main cathedral.

Big balloons painted with the band's trademark balaclava masks floated over the crowd on Saturday, while some rally participants wore T-shirts in support of Pussy Riot.

Many demonstrators targeted Putin with creative placards and outfits. Some mocked Putin's recent publicity stunt in which he flew in a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight.

One protester donned a white outfit similar to the one worn by Putin on the flight with a sign reading: "Give up hope, each of you who follow me." Another person held a placard that said: "We are not your cranes."

Alexei Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption crusader and a popular blogger, remains the rock star among the protest leaders. When he took the stage, young people in the crowd held up their phones to record the moment.

Navalny urged the demonstrators to show resolve and keep up the pressure on the Kremlin with more street protests.

"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."

The rally appeared as big as the last major protest in June, which also attracted tens of thousands. More of the demonstrators, however, came not as members of the varied political organizations that make up the protest movement, but with groups of friends and co-workers, some of them organizing on social networks.

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