A war of rallies continued in Russia a week before presidential elections that is almost certain to see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reclaim presidency for a third time.
Thousands of Putin opponents formed a human chain on a ring road in the centre of Moscow on Sunday to protest Mr. Putin's return as President.
The protest took place three days after Putin campaigners organised a 140,000-strong march and rally in the Russian capital in support of his candidacy and a day after some 30,000 demonstrated against Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia's old imperial capital.
Organisers of Sunday's human chain estimated that 40,000 people turned out, more than enough to “encircle the Kremlin” along the 16-km Garden Ring road. Cars passing by along the busy thoroughfare honked in support of the protesters who were wearing white ribbons — white is the colour of anti-Putin protests — and were carrying white balloons which read: “59. Time to Retire.”
Mr. Putin is 59 years old. He served two presidential terms from 2000 to 2008 and stepped down four years ago because the Constitution allows only two “straight terms”.
A striking difference between the pro- and against-Putin rallies is that the former are organised by authorities and loyal trade unions — participants are brought, many against their will, by bus, train and planes from all over Russia — whereas for anti-Putin protests people get organised through social media. Sunday's “Big White Circle” was essentially a flash mob for which people could “check in” on a website created for the purpose and reserve a spot for themselves on a digital map of the Garden Ring road.
Protests began in the wake of parliamentary elections in December, which were allegedly falsified in favour of Mr. Putin's party, United Russia. But even as tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Russia to protest against alleged gross falsification of, Mr. Putin's campaigners fought back portraying protesters as middle-class bourgeoisie willing to sell out Russia to the West and opposed to the “core” working classes in the provinces.
It is true that many protesters on Sunday were well-off urbanites, even as many others were teachers, researchers and office workers.
Alexei, a 30-year-old manager, drove to the Garden Ring in a high-end Toyota Land Cruiser with his friends.
“Putin is ruining Russia,” he said.
“He has run down our education, health service, and industry. We want him out.”
The problem is that people like Alexei and many other protesters do not see a candidate they could vote for in the March 4 presidential election. Mr. Putin's rivals — Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former Putin ally Sergei Mironov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — are seen as politicians built into the establishment and not prepared to challenge it.
Opinion polls suggest Mr. Putin may win in the first round with about 60 per cent of the votes.