Thousands of Russians form a 10-mile human chain around a Moscow ring road on Monday during an opposition protest against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He is expected to win the March 4 presidential elections but is facing growing opposition.
Thousands of Russians form a 10-mile human chain around a Moscow ring road on Monday during an opposition protest against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He is expected to win the March 4 presidential elections but is facing growing opposition. UPI/Landov
Cars decorated with white ribbons and carnations drove around Moscow's Garden Ring Road in a wet snow this past Sunday, honking cheerfully to the thousands of demonstrators on the sidewalk who formed a human chain around the city.
Elena Korobova was a link in that chain.
"I want to get rid of Putin, because I don't like his policy, I don't like what he's doing for Russia," she says of Vladimir Putin, Russia's current prime minister.
The 60-year-old university administrator believes elections for the parliament, or Duma, in December were rigged. Now, she is training to be a poll watcher for the presidential vote this Sunday.
Vladimir Putin, 59, served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008. When constitutional term limits prevented him from running again, he changed places with his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, and became prime minister. He is widely expected to win.
Gennady Zyuganov, 67, head of Russia's Communist Party, has made three unsuccessful runs for president. His following is made up mainly of older people nostalgic for Soviet times.
Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, is a billionaire whose worldwide assets include the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He is running as a pro-business independent but says he wants to form a political party that will take its direction from the grass roots.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 65, leads the Liberal Democratic Party, a right-wing nationalist group that critics say is neither liberal nor democratic. A perennial candidate, Zhirinovsky is noted for his uninhibited style, once promising free vodka for everyone if he were elected president.
Putin has been Russia's most powerful leader for more than 12 years, first as president and now as prime minister. Last fall, he announced that he and the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, would switch jobs.
Although Russians are expected to vote Putin back to the Kremlin, he is facing a rising wave of people power.
Most Russians say they will vote but don't really like any of the five choices on the ballot. They believe Putin has manipulated the system to eliminate any real opposition.
Those disenchanted voters include Olga Mosina, who is in her 30s and works with an investment company. She says she might cross off all the names, but she will go to the polls.
"I didn't vote in the Duma elections, because I thought my vote wouldn't count," Mosina says. "Now I think it's important. I was at Bolotnaya and now I feel ashamed that I didn't go vote."
Bolotnaya Square is where the first big protest took place after the apparent vote fraud in December. Mosina didn't expect so many people to join the human chain last Sunday, given the mass rallies the Kremlin has mobilized to support Putin.
"I thought the willingness of people to protest against him would be waning," she says.
Russia is changing, says Boris Makarenko, director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"By choosing such a straightforward way of returning to the Kremlin — [such] limited competition, and with [such] imperfect elections — Mr. Putin awoke the protest of middle class, [who are] crying out for dignity more than money or anything else," he says.
That includes middle-class Russians like 47-year-old Anna Nikiforova, a newcomer to Moscow from Yakutsk, in Siberia. On Saturday, she attended a question-and-answer session with one of Putin's four challengers, Mikhail Prokhorov.
Natalia Koleshikova/AFP/Getty Images
Presidential candidate and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks Wednesday at a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow.
Presidential candidate and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks Wednesday at a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow. Natalia Koleshikova/AFP/Getty Images
She had overcome her initial fear that the Kremlin had set Prokhorov up to run to make the ballot look competitive. The candidate wooed supporters with a pre-Lenten holiday party.
Nikiforova, who works for Russia's biggest insurance company, says she is curious about Prokhorov's plans for a political party. She says she's ready to join because Prokhorov says he wants to give priority to human beings — not the state.
Nikiforova's 25-year-old son, Vitaly, also likes Prokhorov.
Many of his friends want to leave Russia, he says, but he wants to stay and make it better.
While Prokhorov managed to pack an auditorium with a mostly young crowd at Moscow's Academy of Sciences, many of Russia's young and discontent aren't supporting anyone yet. They blame Putin for what they see as rampant corruption and the absence of rule of law.
Makarenko, the political analyst, says this group is an amorphous mass. And yet, he warns, Putin is likely to face a difficult six-year term.
"He is at odds with a considerable and active part of the society, and the only recipe [for] success is to regain their trust," he says.
And Putin won't have an easy time with people like protester Olga Mosina.
"He'll be a lame duck from Day 1," she says. "I don't think he'll be in office for six years."
The opposition is already planning more demonstrations immediately after the vote.