Tens of thousands of Muscovites on Sunday linked hands along a 10-mile stretch of roadway in the capital in the latest mass protest against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is expected to win the March 4 presidential election.
People of all ages participated in the peaceful protest, as thousands of passing motorists slowed their vehicles and honked to welcome them. Snow fell as cars, many of them bearing white ribbons, balloons, stickers and flowers, made their way along the protest route.
"I have come out today and I will come again and again until we become a majority and win our fight for a better Russia," said Veronika Bisikalova, a 24-year-old lawyer, waving a white scarf over her head.
The demonstration on the Garden Ring road was held two days after Putin's major campaign event, in which tens of thousands of social and municipal workers were bused to the Luzhniki Stadium to express their support for the former two-term president. Putin attended the rally and called on Russians to fight and protect the motherland in an ongoing "battle of Russia."
Opposition rallygoers said that parliamentary elections last year were riddled with fraud and that Putin will prevail one way or another in next week's vote. But on Sunday, they appeared festive, singing, embracing strangers and taking pictures of one another and of passing vehicles, some of which carried posters calling for Putin's ouster.
"Intentionally or unthinkably Putin and his campaign managers are breaking the country in two, pitting one part of the society — Moscow and big cities, middle class — against the other — provincial workers and farmers and bureaucrats of all ranks," said Sergei Leskov, a 57-year-old Moscow businessman bearing a white ribbon on his chest. "This may in the end lead to a civil war provoked and inspired by the authorities."
Against predictions to the contrary by some experts, the protest drew tens of thousands of people, as had past rallies. Opposition leader and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, who was holding hands with other protesters in front of the Foreign Ministry building, praised the crowd.
"All these people came here today of their free will and nobody is paying them or coercing them," Kasparov said in an interview. "Our movement is not letting up steam and is not diminishing in the least but is just getting more popular and more creative by the day."
The rally was festive and a relaxed preparation for the main event on March 5, after the preliminary election results are announced, Kasparov said.
"We know that Putin is going to win in the first round in an unprecedented ballot stuffing scheme and we won't let him get away with it easily," he said. "We will have an army of observers at polling stations and we will catch Putin in the act and then he will face the biggest mass protest ever."
Some, however, said such protests are playing into Putin's hands. "Not for a second was this movement a political movement," independent political observer Leonid Radzikhovsky said of the opposition actions in an interview on the Echo of Moscow radio station. "It was a show, a PR action, a flash mob, different people mixing together."
More than 100,000 people are expected to take to the streets March 5, and the authorities will have to crack down on the demonstrators spurring up new waves of growing public discontent, said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow-based think tank.
"The country has already entered Perestroika 2 and there is no turning back from it," Belkovsky said. "The Kremlin today possesses neither political nor power resource to shed blood and they will be obligated to go the way of sweeping political reform, with Putin eventually stepping down and removing himself from the political scene and Russia reformatting itself as a modern state adhering to European values."