Massive anti-Putin human chain protest hits Moscow

AFP , Sunday 26 Feb 2012

Thousands of Russians defy PM Vladimir Putin's presidential candidacy, form human chain around Garden Ring Road in Moscow

Opposition supporters wearing white ribbons and carrying balloons and other white objects take part in a protest rally called The White Ring, while they build a human chain along the Garden Ring road in Moscow, Sunday, (Photo: Reuters).

Thousands of Russians linked hands Sunday around Moscow in a symbolic protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's expected return to the Kremlin for a third term in elections next weekend.

A din of endless honking descended on Moscow's 16-kilometre (10-mile) Garden Ring Road as drivers expressed support to large crowds of smiling and waving people who gathered in freezing weather under a heavy gray sky.

"We came here because we disagree with what happened in the legislative elections," said Mikhail, 22, in reference to fraud-tainted December 4 polls that sparked the first mass protests of Putin's 12-year domination of Russia.

"People came here because they hope that this time their votes will be counted," said another 48-year-old member of the human chain, also called Mikhail.

Police estimated that 11,000 people had shown up for the event, less than an hour after its 2:00pm (1000 GMT) start.

An AFP reporter saw some 3,000 people also march through Putin's native city of Saint Petersburg chanting "Russia Without Putin" as hundreds of crack OMON officers watched tensely on the side road.

Smaller anti-Putin demonstrations were reported in the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Kemerovo.

"This might be the last peaceful protest because no one knows what might happen on 5 March," popular writer and protest co-leader Boris Akunin said at the Moscow event, referring to a meeting planned a day after the elections.

"That meeting is unsanctioned and it is already obvious that a lot of people are going to come out," he told the private Rain television network.

"The police might behave differently from the way they are acting now and this seriously concerns me.

Russia has witnessed more than a month of weekly rival rallies between Putin's foes and his state-backed supporters in advance of elections that the 59-year-old former KGB spy is almost certain to win.

The latest polls and forecasts show Putin winning in the first round with around 10 percentage points fewer than the 71 percent he secured on his re-election to a second term in 2004.

But some leading members of the opposition have already vowed to bring out their supporters onto the streets in what could be a tense start to a new six-year term by Putin in which his rule will be challenged for the first time.

Organisers of the "Great White Ring" event said they need 34,000 people to build a complete human chain around inner Moscow.

The Russian strongman's supporters fought back by staging their own event on a central Moscow square called "Putin Loves Everyone".

A Kremlin youth group handed out ribbons with the Russian tricolour flag -- a clear reference to the white ribbons worn by the opposition -- throughout the afternoon.

Posters and flags reading "For Putin. It is as Simple as That" with images of the Russian premier also popped out around the city and spots where Muscovites were expected to link hands for the opposition protests.

The protest action echoes a historic human chain that the three tiny Baltic states organised in 1989 to demand their independence from the Soviet Union.

More than a million people were estimated to have taken part in a protest that was followed in the subsequent two years by their declarations of independence and the Soviet system's collapse.

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