MOSCOW - Thousands marched through Moscow on Saturday to protest against the rule of Vladimir Putin in a test of the opposition’s challenge to the Russian president four months after his inauguration.
Waving nationalist flags, brandishing placards calling for early elections or wearing T-shirts in support of jailed members punk band Pussy Riot, the diverse groups of protestors marched with the chant “1-2-3, Putin go!” The protest was dubbed the “March of Millions” by organisers, who hope to show they still have the momentum created by initial demonstrations in December against fraud-tainted elections and Putin’s 12-year grip on power. Police said that 14,000 people had joined the protest, but organiser and far-left leader Sergei Udaltsov said the numbers were far higher — at least 150,000. “We do not know who taught him to count,” retorted a police spokesman. Split between liberals, nationalists and the extreme left, the anti-Putin opposition has been struggling with its own divisions and accusations it lacks any coherent message beyond hostility to the Kremlin. “Leftwing organisations on the left side of the boulevard!” police shouted through loudspeakers as the march got under way with the different political movements marching in separate files. The protestors converged to hear speeches on Sakharov Avenue, named after the great Soviet dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile by the Soviet authorities. This protest has a bigger focus on social injustice than previous actions and for the first time the Russian Communist Party — the biggest opposition party in parliament — is represented. The march has been given extra impetus by the expulsion from parliament of anti-Putin deputy Gennady Gudkov over alleged conflicting business interests, in what the lawmaker’s supporters said was crude revenge for opposing Putin.