Tens Of Thousands Protest Russia's Putin

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow where tens of thousands of demonstrators braved bitter cold to rally for and against Vladimir Putin today. With just one month before a presidential election, the opposition is making a big push for a fair vote, and the government is responding with counter-demonstrations.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Turning now to Russia. In Moscow, tens of thousands of people took to the streets today in dueling demonstrations for and against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin is seeking to return to the presidency in next month's elections.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from the Russian capital.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The anti-Putin demonstrators walked briskly over the ice and slush, facing into a stiff breeze that billowed the banners calling for fair elections. The marchers ranged from hip young urbanites to elderly Communists. Most were well and even fashionably dressed against the cold, a mainly middle-class crowd that was out to make a political statement rather than an economic one.

Pharmacist Mikhail Melikhov says he has attended all three of the major opposition rallies in Moscow.

MIKHAIL MELIKHOV: It's the voice of my soul, because I against this power, because I think this level of corruption is incredible.

FLINTOFF: Still, Melikhov, who's 32, says he's not sure who will get his vote next month. He only knows that it won't be Putin. Across town, the protesters' message was countered by a pro-Putin rally. Organizers said that rally was against the so-called Orange revolutions, like the people-powered demonstrations that reversed an allegedly rigged election in Ukraine. Speakers said that kind of revolution in Russia could lead to mob rule and even civil war. Both sides are claiming huge turnouts, and the opposition points to protest rallies across the county.

An independent count commissioned by the radio station Echo Moscow found that the anti-Putin rally drew almost 66,000 people. That count, based on aerial photographs, said the pro-Putin demonstration was bigger, mustering about 80,000. But at the edge of that rally, there were lines of yellow buses that had carried many people to the event from other parts of Russia. Some people said they'd been pressured by their employers to attend.

The numbers are important because each side wants to show that it has strong public support leading up to the election. They're appealing to Russian anxieties, discontent and patriotism. The anti-Putin rally ended with this song by popular singer Yuri Shevchuk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

YURI SHEVCHUK: (Singing in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: The lyrics go: The motherland, even though she's deformed, we love her, a sleeping beauty. The opposition says it hopes to hold one more big rally shortly before the elections on March 4th, and the pro-Putin forces may do the same. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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