Tens of thousands rally for Putin

February 23, 2012

In a show of strength that demonstrated his intention to win the presidency by a landslide, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put his political machine into top gear Thursday as it assembled tens of thousands of people for a meticulously organized, and heavily patriotic, pre-election rally.

Using the considerable means at his disposal, Putin showed why even the opposition here expects him to come out on top in the March 4 election. He freely deployed government resources, and marshaled as participants those who rely on a government paycheck — or a paycheck from a company that enjoys government largesse. The police said the turnout reached 130,000.

A city official recruited and provided a bus for a small organization of retired women in southeast Moscow. University students in Ingushetia, in the North Caucasus, rode for 27 hours to reach Moscow. Private employers handed out city bus passes to their workers. Teachers from local universities ticked off the names of their students as they arrived.

The army set up field kitchens to disburse food and beverages. So did the ministry of emergency situations. The Moscow schools food service program delivered rations in its trucks.

Military police directed traffic. Banners were handed out to people who didn’t always know what they stood for. All this was in contrast to the opposition demonstrations of earlier weeks — as was the trash that Thursday’s attendees left behind.

But being recruited, pressured or forced to attend did not appear to translate into a lack of genuine support for Putin. “Stability,” agreed the retired women, was what they approve of in Putin. They, like many others, chose not to give their names — also in contrast to the opposition protesters.

“Everything will be great; Ingushetia is for Putin,” said Uruskhan Galayev, a 20-year-old student, who was clearly enjoying the chance to have an outing with his friends.

“At this point in time, it’s better to have a president with experience and who has already dealt with crises,” said Sergei Grigorin, a 54-year-old retired veteran. Besides, he added, “none of the other candidates has a chance of winning the election.”

That, in fact, has been one of the main opposition complaints against Putin. He has apparently decided that he must win more than 50 percent of the vote, to avoid a second round. So a government-controlled polling agency now reports that he is in line to win 58.6 percent of the vote, after steady improvement all winter. That could be an actual reflection of his standing — or it could be the response to an order from on high. Reports of widespread fraud in December’s parliamentary elections have generated a large degree of suspicion here over officially reported numbers.

Pressure against the few remnants of a free press has been stepped up. The government moved to take firmer control of Ekho Moskvy, an insouciant radio station; security agents raided the bank of Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire and former KGB agent who provides financial support for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which said it would have to suspend staff salaries for a month; and prosecutors questioned a lively Internet TV station, called Dozhd, as to whether it receives financing from American sources.

Putin has been hammering away at the United States, and on Thursday — the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland here, a holiday formerly known as Soviet Army Day — he dwelt on Russian pride and patriotism.

“We came here to say we love Russia,” Putin said after striding on to a stage in the middle of the 80,000-seat Luzhniki stadium under a steadily falling snow. “We are the defenders of our fatherland.”

The response from the crowd was muted. Thousands had streamed out before he arrived, complaining of the cold and, in many cases, declaring that they had fulfilled their obligation to a boss or teacher and now just wanted to go home. They may not have known he would speak — whether he would or not was not clear until he entered the stadium. But many thousands more had stayed. One or two applause lines went by in silence — but when Putin finished, the stadium erupted into cheers.

Putin evoked a Russia under siege, recalling that this year marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the Battle of Borodino.

“The fight for Russia continues,” he said. “We will win.”

He alluded to a poem about Borodino written by Mikhail Lermontov. “I cannot help recalling Lermontov and his wonderful warriors, who swore loyalty to the fatherland before the battle and dreamt of dying for it,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to impose his will on us because we have our own will, which has helped us win at all times.”

That was just what Mikhail Sorokin, a 45-year-old computer programmer, had come to hear. He’s sick of Russians who don’t have Russia’s interest at heart. “Our opposition doesn’t serve our people; it serves a global empire called the U.S.A,” he said.

That opposition wasn’t much in evidence at the stadium. About 10 activists who tried to distribute anti-Putin information to the marchers were taken away by police.

Elsewhere in Moscow, the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democrats staged their own small election rallies.

But they were no match for the Putin political machine, which brought in participants from as far away as Kalmykia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and Yakutia, in eastern Siberia.

“People got together because they want to defend our country, they want to defend our future, they want to defend our families,” said Vasily Pugachev, a member of a district council in Moscow. “One man cannot defend the motherland by himself.”

He acknowledged that schools, among other organizations, were told to turn out for the rally. The pitch, he said, went like this: “We have to support Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. It’s important. If you want, you can come.”

Naturally, he said, people were free to do as they pleased.

Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya contributed to this report.

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