Thousands rally in Russia against economic policy
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) – Thousands of people have rallied across Russia to denounce the government’s economic policy and demand more freedom in a new challenge to the Kremlin reflecting increasing disillusionment and a growing potential for protests.
Many participants in Saturday’s rallies, dubbed the “Day of Wrath” by the opposition, demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
About 1,000 people demonstrated in St. Petersburg holding placards reading “Putin’s team must resign!”
Police did not intervene in the St. Petersburg protest, but they barred protesters chanting anti-Putin slogans from holding a rally in downtown Moscow. City police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said 70 people had been detained for taking part in the protest, which was not authorized by authorities.
Opposition activists have insisted the Russian constitution guarantees the right of assembly.
Authorities allowed an earlier protest of about 1,000 people in another section of Moscow to demand reform of the Russian traffic police department, which has been criticized for corruption and inefficiency.
An opposition rally in the far eastern port of Vladivostok drew about 1,500 people, and similar protests were to be held in many other cities throughout Russia on Saturday.
Several thousand demonstrators gathered in the Baltic city of Kaliningrad despite a decision by opposition leaders to cancel the protest. They chanted “Government should resign!” and called for the ouster of the provincial governor, the Interfax news agency reported. Police did not intervene.
Organizers said about 5,000 people attended the protest, while police said about 3,000 took part, Interfax said.
A rally in Kaliningrad in January attracted about 10,000 in the largest anti-government protest in years, and the event clearly worried the government. Putin has criticized the main pro-Kremlin party, saying its empty promises have fed discontent.
Putin moved into the prime minister’s seat in 2008 after eight years as president but retains much of his power. The opposition has accused him of rolling back many of the democratic achievements of the 1990s.
“Nothing will change as long as Putin stays at the helm,” Olga Kurnosova of the United Civil Front, an umbrella group uniting several opposition parties and movements, said at St. Petersburg’s rally. “We don’t want him to continue ruling.”
Some protesters criticized Putin’s Cabinet for failing to compensate for a rise in utility tariffs that has affected living standards.
“I’m worried about growing gas and electricity prices,” said Vyacheslav Ivanov, a 71-year old retiree. “The prices are growing, and we are getting poorer.”
Many others blamed the government for red tape and rampant corruption that have stifled business.
“I came to this rally because it’s impossible to develop small business in this country,” said the 58-year old Yelena Balikina. She said she had to close her business because of official restrictions.
“They stamp small business out with taxes and inspections,” Balikina said. “And you have to pay bribes on every step.”
In Vladivostok, where many residents make their living by trading in cars imported from nearby Japan, demonstrators protested the latest restrictive measures against foreign vehicles introduced by the authorities in a bid to protect local car makers.
Some also carried political placards, such as “Freedom of speech, freedom of elections!”
Associated Press writers Liya Khabarova in Vladivostok and Ivan Secretarev in Moscow contributed to this report.