Russians Protest Putin in 'Big White Circle'
MOSCOW - Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow today to protest against corruption one week before Russians go to the polls to elect their next president.
It was the latest in a string of demonstrations directed against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that were unimaginable here just three months ago.
Protestors linked hands along the ring road surrounding central Moscow in what was being called a "Big White Circle," named after the opposition's iconic white ribbons. Many more drove by with white ribbons fluttering from their windows and honking in support.
Organizers estimated that around 40,000 people turned out for the event, while police figures put the number at 11,000.
The protest was much smaller than previous demonstrations against Putin, including one earlier this month during frigid winter weather. That, combined with rising poll numbers for Putin, may signal some fatigue among the Russian opposition who have resigned to the fact that Putin is likely to win the March 4 vote.
Still, most protestors were energetic and cheered at cars that passed with white signs in the windows. The atmosphere was positive and several demonstrators said they were content that their voice was finally being heard. Even if Putin wins, some say they feel Russia has been changed for good.
"This is a new generation, a generation who has had enough of the old things and a generation that cannot be ruled as before," a young man named Yevgeny said.
His feelings were echoed by Alexy Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and blogger who has led the protests against Putin since December.
"For Russia it means that it will never be the same. Thousands of people went out on the street to demonstrate that we will not allow our votes to be stolen anymore," he told ABC News while holding hands with fellow protestors along the ring road.
Police were out in force to prevent protestors from blocking traffic. The heaviest police presence was around Red Square and nearby Revolution Square, where they had riot helmets and nightsticks at the ready.
In Revolution Square a group of communist youth activists planned to burn Putin in effigy. There the atmosphere was more tense and the crowd chanted "Russia without Putin" and "Putin is a thief."
Their protests appeared to dare the police to arrest them, but it was clear early on that the police had no interest in making any of them a martyr today.
Putin is expected to win next Sunday's election despite the protests. Even independent pollsters put his popularity at over 60 percent.
The question becomes how he can govern after this. While President Obama would dream of an approval rating of 60 percent, it is a very low figure for Putin, who regularly enjoyed better than 80 percent approval and little resistance from the country's empowered class.
Experts here agree that Putin will be hard-pressed to govern with impunity as he did before. He will have to answer to a newly energized opposition.
One big reason for the energized opposition has been the political awakening of the country's youth, a generation often derided for being interested more in the latest fashion than in politics. That, too, is changing.
Many of them admit that before December they did not think much about national politics.
"I'm getting more mature probably. The whole society is getting mature," said Alena Bykova, a twenty-something PR manager for a major electronics store chain, during a break from a class last week on how to be an effective election monitor.
She says she feels a "new wind" in her country and says she is determined to catch fraud at the polls.