MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hundreds of Russian opposition activists rallied in Moscow on Saturday, shouting slogans comparing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a rare protest approved by the authorities.
“Putin is Stalin! Putin is Brezhnev! Russia without Putin,” chanted the crowd, including former chess master Garry Kasparov, one of the Kremlin’s harshest critics who co-heads the democratic, pro-western Solidarity movement.
The opposition says Putin has stifled media freedom and democratic rights when he was president between 2000 and 2008.
They accuse Putin of blind economic policies — similar to the years of stagnation under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev — as he continues to dominate Russian politics after handpicking successor Dmitry Medvedev and becoming prime minister under him.
Putin’s supporters say Russia has enjoyed one of the longest periods of growth under his leadership, saying the country is now on its way to recover fully from the economic collapse and political chaos which followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The global economic crisis has silenced some of those voices as Russia has faced a deep economic contraction.
“Haven’t you noticed what is happening in this country?” Kasparov told Reuters, surrounded by activists holding orange balloons and placards demanding democratic elections.
“Everything has got worse. The economy is sinking, the politicians do not allow any opposition into parliament, Putin’s state control is all encompassing and the authorities cannot close their eyes to us today.”
Opposition groups have been repeatedly banned from holding rallies and rely mainly on street protests — often broken up by police — and online campaigning to get their message across.
Kasparov said it was the first time the authorities have let the opposition rally on May 1. Other groups such as the nationalists and neo-Nazis have often been allowed to rally.
One protester at the opposition rally held a large caricature picture of Putin kissing Brezhnev, but police took it down. Kasparov said some 40,000 people have already signed his petition asking Putin to resign.
Elsewhere in Moscow, thousands of Russian Communists, trade union activists, nationalists and supporters of Putin’s ruling United Russia party rallied to mark May Day.
Media reports put the nationwide total at 1.7 million, from Russia’s Pacific coast to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Russia’s Communist Party, the country’s second biggest party, cherish May 1 — known as International Workers Day in the Soviet era — and some 3,000 marched on Saturday holding traditional red banners and large portraits of Stalin.
Critics of the Communists say they are not real opposition as their leaders often avoid criticism of Putin or Medvedev.
“People of labor have no other weapons but to come out together to force the authorities to listen to their demands,” Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told Reuters.
“And those demands are pretty simple. We need jobs, we need real modernization and not talk. We need the fight against corruption and bandits.”
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Yuri Pushkin, editing by Maria Golovnina