MOSCOW (Reuters) – Thousands of people took to the streets of several Russian cities on Sunday to protest against Vladimir Putin on the eve of his return to the presidency, but opposition hopes of staging a “march of a million” fell flat.
At least 20,000 people protested under banners and flags in Moscow, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin – thief”, the day before a lavish inauguration inside the Kremlin at which the head of the Russian Orthodox Church will bless Putin.
Demonstrators carried a black coffin bearing the word “democracy” through the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and several people were detained there and at protests in the Urals city of Kurgan and Kemerovo in western Siberia.
Many of the protesters are angry that Putin is extending his 12-year domination of Russia, despite being undermined by large protests from December to March, and fear he will stifle political and economic reform in his third term as president.
“History shows that if one person rules for a long time, especially using the methods of a dictator, nothing good comes of it for the country,” said an 85-year-old World War Two veteran in Moscow who gave his name only as Alexander.
Holding a banner saying “Putin lost my trust”, 44-year-old Andrey Asianov said: “I trusted Putin as long as he ruled within the bounds of the constitution but our law limits the presidency to two consecutive terms. He and his clown (outgoing President Dmitry) Medvedev spat on that.”
But the sting has gone out of protests since Putin was elected to his third term as president of the world’s largest country and biggest energy producer with almost 64 percent of the vote in the March 4 presidential election.
Opposition efforts to draw big crowds were also hit by the departure of many city dwellers for the countryside as Sunday was the start of a national holiday lasting until Thursday.
The Moscow protest was marred by the death of a photographer who Itar-Tass news said fell from a balcony as he tried to take pictures of the rally on a square across the Moscow river from the Kremlin.
Putin, a former KGB spy, simply ignored the protests. He looked relaxed as he attended a religious ceremony led by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that marked the transfer of a revered icon from a museum into the hands of the Church.
Thousands of Putin supporters were expected to attend a separate rally in Moscow later on Sunday that was intended to show he enjoys more support than the opposition.
Putin, 59, has dismissed allegations that widespread fraud helped him win the presidential election and secured victory for his United Russia party in a parliamentary poll in December, but the opposition says he was illegitimately elected.
“We cannot stay silent and watch this disgrace,” said Boris Nemtsov, a liberal opposition leader. He said Putin had come to regard his inauguration on Monday as a coronation but it should be seen as the “funeral of honest politics”.
Medvedev has pushed only limited political reforms through parliament following the protests, which at their height attracted tens of thousands of people in Moscow and St Petersburg but did not spread outside big cities.
The demonstrations have deprived Putin of his aura of invincibility, and opposition candidates have been trying to get a foothold on power in municipal elections, but the size of the protests on Sunday was unlikely to trouble the president-elect.
Even so, protesters said Sunday’s rallies were another signal to Putin that Russia had changed as he returns to the Kremlin after four years absence, even if change was coming slowly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Such protests were unthinkable until December, when anger over the electoral fraud allegations spilled over.
“Civil society is taking shaping little by little. People will concentrate more on local problems and change things from the bottom up. It’s clear we aren’t going to march on the Kremlin,” said Maria Golinchuk, 25, a kindergarden teacher.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Alison Williams)