KYZYL, Russia (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin, faced with mass protests in large cities, has received a hero’s welcome in the remote Russian region of Tyva where he campaigned to mobilize his core supporters ahead of the presidential election in March 2012.
Tens of thousands of people have protested this month in Moscow and other cities against alleged fraud in the December 4 parliamentary election. Many directed their anger at Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000.
In Tyva, a region on the border with Mongolia five hours by air from Moscow, the mood on Monday was different. Hundreds of locals, many wearing colorful local hats and overcoats, braved temperatures well below freezing to catch a glimpse of Putin.
“Putin is our leader, it is so good he could make it here,” said Eres Khuruk, adding that he had waited in the cold in the barren steppe for two hours with his wife to shake Putin’s hand and watch the ceremony of a railroad construction launch.
Putin hammered a golden spike at a spot outside the capital Kyzyl to mark the start of construction of Tyva’s first railroad which will link the region, known for its wildlife and natural resources, to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Workers and local residents rushed to Putin when he finished, trying to shake his hand, shouting “Vladimir Vladimirovich” and taking pictures. Putin looked confused as he moved through the exhilarated crowd.
“You should not wash your hands now,” one worker told a female colleague who has just shaken Putin’s hand and was smiling happily.
“I managed to hold his hand for the whole of 10 seconds,” another worker said.
When completed, the 400-km (250-mile) railway will transport Tyva’s coal and other mineral resources to markets such as Japan, China and South Korea as the region seeks to repeat the success story of neighboring Mongolia.
Putin’s United Russia party scored over 85 percent of votes in the Buddhist region of 300,000 and many people have said they will vote for Putin again in the presidential election. Very few had heard of the protests in Moscow.
Putin’s advisers are seeking to spin the protests as a whim of Moscow-based intellectuals who represent a tiny minority while the rest of the vast country still backs the 59-year-old leader.
“He is a sportsman and I am a sportsman. I respect him very much,” Aidar, a sumo wrestler, said. “Moscow is very far,” he added when asked what he thought of the protests.
Putin is a frequent guest in Tyva, one of Russia’s most exotic corners. In 2007 he took Monaco’s Prince Albert to the region for a rafting journey down the Yenisei River and a tour of an ancient Uigur fortress.
Widely circulated pictures of Putin riding a horse bare-chested and swimming across the river were taken in Tyva during his 2009 holiday.
The region’s head, former martial arts fighter Sholban Kara-Ool, sought to express his indignation at Moscow protests when he met with Putin.
“Sometimes things we see in the mass media make us outraged. I just wanted to tell you what simple people think about it,” Kara-Ool told Putin.
“Let’s talk business,” Putin responded, interrupting him. “What is the situation in the republic?”
Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Michael Roddy