Thousands in Russia protest government in a 'Day of Wrath'

By Philip P. Pan
Sunday, March 21, 2010

KALININGRAD, RUSSIA -- Thousands of people participated in anti-government rallies across Russia on Saturday, including nearly 3,000 residents of this Baltic exclave who defied police and staged a boisterous, rain-soaked protest 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.

The unauthorized rally in Kaliningrad, a seaport located far from the rest of Russia between Poland and Lithuania, took place despite a concerted effort by the Kremlin and local authorities to prevent it -- and opposition leaders' decision to cancel for fear of police violence.

In late January, as many as 15,000 people here participated in a protest against Kaliningrad's unelected governor and Putin's ruling party, United Russia. The size and stridency of the demonstration -- in a former German city that Moscow has long used to showcase its reach into Europe -- alarmed the Kremlin, which dispatched top officials to take control of the situation.

City authorities refused to let protest organizers hold a follow-up rally in a vast lot near the city's center, saying an agricultural fair would be using the site, and offered to let them use a remote stadium instead. But the Kremlin appeared divided about how to handle the protest, which the opposition predicted would draw as many as 50,000 people.

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!"

When the officers retreated, the protesters essentially occupied the fairgrounds, chanting slogans calling on Putin and the Moscow businessman he appointed as governor, Gyorgy Boos, to resign. Many held tangerines in the air to mock Boos's use of the fruit as his political emblem.

"The assembly today showed that the people's mood of protest has not diminished," said Mikhail Chesalin, a union chief and opposition party leader. Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, 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 organized 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."

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