Protesters Throng Moscow Antiputin March

February 5, 2012 by staff 

Protesters Throng Moscow Antiputin March, Antigovernment protesters managed to gather a third huge crowd in the center of Moscow on Saturday, undeterred by the arctic cold or by the near certainty that Vladimir V. Putin will win a six-year presidential term next month.

This time, the Russian authorities were prepared, organizing a simultaneous, and also huge, rally in defense of Mr. Putin. Speakers there issued dire warnings of the possible consequences of continued protest: revolution and the breakup of the country.

The sun was a remote white disk above the horizon, and the temperature was measured at minus 4. Demonstrators, swaddled in fur hats and parkas, hopped to keep their feet from freezing.

By the end of the frigid day, it appeared that antigovernment demonstrations had not lost momentum and could continue into the spring. If they do, they will pose an unexpected challenge to Mr. Putin, who has never faced sustained public opposition in his 12 years as the country’s paramount leader.

“It’s clear nothing will change, but at least we can demonstrate — six months ago nobody could have imagined it in Moscow,” said Marina V. Segupova, 28, an interior decorator who was wearing a scarf encrusted with white from her frozen breath. “We want the military and the police to come over to our side. We will show our good will; we will show that we’re kind.”

“We are a snowball,” she said, “and we are rolling.”

The city’s authorities said the antigovernment crowd on Saturday was larger than at either of the two similar rallies in December, and they estimated that about 36,000 people where there. Organizers gave an estimate of 120,000.

With precisely a month left before presidential elections, polls show that Mr. Putin, who is currently prime minister, is far ahead of his four rivals in the race, and has a good chance of breaking the 50 percent barrier to win in a first round. If he falls short of that, he would be almost certain to win in a second round three weeks later, though the process would cast doubt on the strength of his public mandate.

The protest movement, meanwhile, has not coalesced into a coherent political force. It lacks leaders willing or able to challenge Mr. Putin, still by far the country’s most popular politician. Maksim Trudolyubov, the editorial editor of Vedomosti, a daily newspaper, said the protests’ major impact was to broadcast a message that Mr. Putin could not continue to rule in the same highly centralized style.

“We are standing at a really important threshold for this country,” Mr. Trudolyubov said in an interview. “Right now, if nothing extraordinary happens — a black swan, or something — he is of course the president in March. But in March, he will be a very different president, a president with a different level of legitimacy.”

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