Putin team defiant after protest rocks Russia

Anna Smolchenko – AFP December 25, 2011

Vladimir Putin still has the support of a majority of Russians, his spokesman said Sunday after a mass protest challenged the premier’s authority two months before he stands in presidential polls.

Organisers said 120,000 people attended the rally in central Moscow Saturday where protesters chanted slogans against Prime Minister Putin and called for the annulment of disputed December parliamentary elections won by his party.

Police put the numbers at 29,000 but AFP correspondents said the turnout was clearly bigger and more anti-Putin in tone than the first rally two weeks ago which smashed the taboo in Russia against mass opposition protests.

“As a politician and a presidential candidate, Putin still has the support of a majority. And we should treat the opinion of a majority with respect,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP.

He added that Putin was “beyond competition” as a candidate in March 4, 2012 presidential polls, where the Russian strongman plans to stand for a third Kremlin term after his four-year stint as prime minister.

Peskov acknowledged the protest had taken place and said the demonstrators’ position was to be treated with respect. “Those people who came out onto the streets — they are a very important part of society. But they are a minority.”

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had late Saturday dramatically called on Putin to quit, just as he had done on December 25, 1991 when the USSR collapsed exactly two decades ago.

“This is not an outburst which will die down. This is not about the protests but about the mood,” Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the Centre for Social Policies at the Moscow-based Economics Institute, told AFP.

“There is a danger of a revolution. Authorities are making concessions but are not keeping up with the development of the events.”

Russia’s state television took the surprise decision to cover the rally hinting at an easing of a long-held taboo against direct criticism of Putin, who came to power 12 years ago and wants to stay at the helm until 2024.

Putin — who announced a plan to leave his current post as prime minister to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls — is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his rule.

Mass protests were triggered by widespread claim of wholesale violations in this month’s parliamentary polls which handed a reduced majority to Putin’s ruling United Russia party.

Protesters called for the annulment of the ballot, sacking of the Central Election Commission chief and a re-run of elections.

Hoping to ride out a wave of protests, Putin ignored those demands and promised instead a return to the direct election of governors and a simplified procedure to register political parties.

In defiance of the protests, the newly-elected lower house of parliament convened for its first session earlier this week.

Incensed by the Russian premier’s claims that opposition supporters were in the pay of the US State Department and insults comparing them to an anti-AIDS campaign, protesters are now taking their anger out directly at Putin.

Most Russians lost their taste for street politics in the chaotic 90s and the scale of the current protests is a major boon for the fragmented opposition which had for years struggled to encourage Russians to take to the streets.

The protest movement — which brings together a charismatic anti-corruption blogger, a detective story writer, musicians and a former finance minister — does not so far have a clear leader but is gaining momentum.

The blogger, 35-year-old Alexei Navalny, vowed that one million people would attend the next anti-Putin rally but the opposition has yet to announce when this will happen.

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