MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police broke up an opposition demonstration in Moscow on Saturday, one of around 50 rallies across the country with thousands protesting falling living standards under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
A coalition of opposition groups declared a national “Day of Anger” with nationwide rallies tapping into anger which has been rising since the economic crisis hit. The protests mixed local issues with anger at the federal government.
Opposition groups have been heartened by unusually large rallies in recent months. But riven by division they were unable to match the 10,000 people who gathered for a January rally in the western city of Kaliningrad, one of the largest in a decade.
“The mood has changed, but it has not yet turned into a movement,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank. But for the micro-managers in the Kremlin “the stakes are extremely high,” she said.
At least 1,500 people turned out in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, raising their hands to support a motion to dismiss Putin’s government. Around 1,000 rallied in Saint Petersburg and hundreds gathered in several other cities.
“People have no work and they are fed up,” said Ivan Fotodtov, 26, a Vladivostok web designer who braved snow to protest rising bills cutting into his stagnant wages.
Local elections last week showed support for Putin’s United Russia party has fallen since the start of the economic crisis, which brought a sudden end to 10 years of growth and drove unemployment above 9 percent. Last year, gross domestic product fell by about 8 percent, Russia’s worst performance since 1994.
In the capital, hundreds of police officers blocked off the central Pushkin Square and detained dozens of protesters when they began to chant, shouting “Freedom!” and “This is our city!”
A Moscow police spokesman said 70 people were detained after 200 tried to hold an unsanctioned rally.
U.S. Senator John McCain on Thursday warned that Saturday’s protests were a test of the Kremlin’s tolerance for dissent. “The eyes of the world will be watching,” he said at the Senate.
In Kaliningrad, organizers of the January rally said they decided to cancel a demonstration on Saturday after authorities offered talks and hinted that police would break up the protest. A coalition of opposition parties split since the first rally.
Some 2,000 people gathered without placards near the site of the January protest, but quickly dispersed in heavy rain.
Protesters across the country had a dizzying array of demands, but they were united in their anger at the ruling United Russia party.
One poster in Vladivostok called for “Free Speech, Free Elections!” while others demanded more funding for children’s sports and lower household bills. A poster calling for Putin to kill himself was quickly torn down by other protesters.
Around 1,000 people gathered in the Siberian city of Irkutsk to decry Putin’s decision to reopen a factory that locals say pollutes Lake Baikal. The crowd cheered as opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called on Putin to quit.
“Yes to Baikal, No to Putin,” chanted Nemtsov, the leader of the opposition Solidarity movement, which has been criticized for hijacking local protests.
“Each region has its own issues, but everyone sees their lives are getting worse,” Nemtsov told Reuters. “The protests are only going to grow.”
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Jon Hemming