Thousands of Russians rallied against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government on Saturday in a string of protests fuelled by sharp falls in living standards since the economic crisis hit.
A coalition of opposition groups declared a national "Day of Anger" with some 50 rallies tapping into rising discontent at unemployment, higher bills and transport taxes. Protests across the country mixed local issues with anger at the ruling party.
While Kremlin critics have been heartened by a series of protests in recent months, they have been unable to consolidate their forces.
"The mood has changed, but it has not yet turned into a movement," said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank of the rise in protests.
But despite their scattered nature, the Kremlin is genuinely worried by the rallies, she said.
"For the government the stakes are extremely high. Even a minimal risk is still a risk for them."
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, with a large rally planned in Moscow for later in the afternoon.
"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. "People are angry not just with the local authorities, but Moscow too."
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 has driven unemployment above 9 percent. Last year, gross domestic product fell by about 8 percent, Russia's worst performance since 1994.
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 who gathered in the Siberian city of Irkutsk to decry Putin's decision to reopen a factory that locals say pollutes Lake Baikal cheered as opposition politicians called on Putin to quit.
"Each region has its own issues, but everyone sees their lives are getting worse," said Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Solidarity opposition movement. "The protests are only going to grow."
The Kremlin has long seen mass protests as one of the biggest potential threats to its power and regularly sends in police to break up opposition protests, but most of Saturday's rallies passed off in relative calm.
In Vladivostok, where riot police from Moscow arrested a hundred people at an unsanctioned protest in 2008, only a few dozen police were visible.
But dozens of police vans gathered near Moscow's Pushkin Square for an unsanctioned rally later in the day.
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.
ReutersLast Mod: 20 Mart 2010, 14:49