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Why Putin needs a strong opponent

Thousands of people participated in anti-government rallies across Russia on Saturday, calling on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to step down.

world Updated: Mar 21, 2010 23:13 IST

Thousands of people participated in anti-government rallies across Russia on Saturday, calling on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to step down.

The coordinated demonstrations, which opposition leaders dubbed a “Day of Wrath,” occurred in dozens of cities and towns across 11 time zones, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk and Vladivostok. Though turnout appeared limited, the string of protests hinted at widespread frustration with Russia’s most serious economic downturn in more than a decade.

Konstantin Doroshok, one of the protest leaders, said he negotiated with a Moscow official who agreed to allow a peaceful demonstration as long as participants refrained from calling for Putin’s resignation. But Doroshok said the official later flew to Kaliningrad to tell him the deal had been overruled by others in Moscow determined to provoke bloodshed and portray the protesters as radical separatists.

Doroshok called off the rally in response to the warning. But his decision disappointed many of the protesters, some of whom began circulating a message online and in fliers: “Citizens are going to the fair because the protest is forbidden. What about you?”

Among those who showed up at the fair Saturday was Gyorgy Yermolayev, 68, a pensioner who hoisted a Russian flag decorated with paper spiders representing corrupt officials. Police ordered him to put it away but were quickly surrounded by a crowd shouting, “Freedom! Freedom!”

Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the situation in Kaliningrad illustrates how the Kremlin’s efforts to keep opposition parties weak is beginning to backfire.

“These protests are more spontaneous. They aren’t organised by political parties, so they can’t be stopped by political parties,” he said. “If opposition parties are weak, the Kremlin isn’t in a position to negotiate with anyone to contain the protests. And that means they can’t be easily controlled.”

In exclusive partenrship with The Washington Post.

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