From Jeffrey Kofman in London
Vladimir Putin is clearly worried.
He dismissed the first two anti-Putin protests on the streets of Moscow in December, but to counter this Saturday' planned protests his apparatchiks have sanctioned three pro-Putin rallies in Moscow and more across Russia.
How worried is he? Gazeta.ru is reporting that public school teachers are being ordered to attend the pro-Putin rallies and that the teachers union leadership has promised to get 30,000 of its members to show up. Russian media is saying that it is being told that local TV and print should show happy faces.
Pro-Putin forces are trying to show that he has a lot of support from the working class i.e. from those who really work hard, while suggesting those who support the opposition are spoiled white collar workers.
It sounds like the old games of the now-disintegrated Soviet Union are alive and well.
Putin's pushback reflects a significant change in tone from December, when he dismissed the first demonstration as the work forces trying to destabilize Russia. He then infuriated his opponents when he said he thought the white ribbons on their lapels were condoms.
Meanwhile the anti-Putin forces continue to use Facebook and related Russian websites to marshal supporters. More than 25,000 people have confirmed on Facebook their possible participation at this weekend's anti-Putin demo. Organizers have permission for 50,000 people (just how the authorities monitor/enforce this is a mystery.)
The big obstacle to a huge turnout this Saturday is the weather. A blistering cold snap has engulfed Russia and Eastern Europe. The temperature in Moscow today : -8 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chill of - 22 degrees F. It will be slightly warmer on Saturday, but I was in Moscow on December 24 th for the last protest when it was just below freezing. It didn't take long for the damp Russian cold to penetrate the layers of clothing I was wearing. Hardy Muscovites turned out in huge numbers that day: by some estimates 100,000. Will they do so again if it is so much colder? It helps (a little) that this weekend's anti-Putin protest will begin with a 2 km march before the rally in Bolotnaya Square.
The famously apathetic Russians began these protests after widespread claims that the December 4 th parliamentary elections in which Putin's party barely won a majority were rigged. It certainly seems that the anti-Putin forces are not losing momentum. On Sunday thousands of cars flying white ribbons and balloons circled central Moscow on Sunday in a show of force.
Putin - who was President from 2000 to 2008 - is almost certain to win the March 4 th Presidential election. He has crushed any serious opposition. The protests reflect a growing disenchantment as Russians face another six years of his autocratic leadership.
This is one to watch. But dress warmly.