The organizers of a new mass opposition protest in Moscow urged on Friday a nationwide voting campaign to prevent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin from returning to the Kremlin next month.
“Rally participants urge all Russian citizens not to cast a single vote for Vladimir Putin at the March 4 presidential elections,” read a resolution issued by protest leaders, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, ahead of Saturday’s demonstration.
Protest organizers also asked voters to only back presidential candidates willing, if elected, to implement a range of demands, including “new parliamentary elections within a year and new presidential polls with two years.”
So far, only veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has formally pledged to satisfy protesters’ requirements if he triumphs at the polls. He has, however, not committed himself to a two-year term of office.
State-run pollster VTSIOM said on Friday that support for Putin was at 52 percent, with Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky tying for second with 8 percent.
A poll by the independent Levada Center reported on Thursday, however, that a mere 49 percent of Russians believed the elections would be fair.
Nemtsov also said the recent exclusion of Grigory Yavlinsky head of the tiny, liberal Yabloko party, from the presidential race was “politically motivated.” Yavlinsky was barred after election officials ruled that thousands of signatures in support of his candidacy were faked.
“We are calling for his reinstatement,” he said. “This would at least make the elections partly resemble genuine polls…All the current candidates, in some way or another, rely on Putin.”
Fellow protest leader Vladimir Ryzhkov said Yavlinksy would speak at the rally on Saturday. Of the five presidential candidates, he said only tycoon businessman Mikhail Prokhorov would be present, although he would not give a speech.
“It’s probably not worth waiting for Putin to turn up,” he joked.
Saturday’s march winds through downtown Moscow to Bolotnaya Square, across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. Organizers originally wanted the rally to finish adjacent to Red Square, but their application was turned down.
This will be the third mass opposition demonstration in Moscow since the December 4 parliamentary polls, which were marred by allegations of widespread vote fraud in favor of Putin’s United Russia party.
The previous two For Free Elections rallies ended without a single arrest and drew an estimated, combined total of some 100,000 people. But with temperatures expected to fall as low as minus 23 Degrees Celsius (minus 9 Degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday, protest leaders have been cautious about turnout predictions.
“I’d advise anyone going to the rally to dress up warm,” Nemtsov said at a downtown Moscow news conference. “Three hours is a long time to stand out in the freezing cold.”
Almost 30,000 people have however so far indicated on social networks that they plan to attend the march and subsequent rally.
Nemtsov also hit out at allegations that the protest movement was being funded from abroad, saying its financing was “transparent.”
“Our critics would love for accusations that we are being funded by the U.S. State Department to become the dominant theme of discussions,” he said. “But it won’t happen.”
Putin said in December that the United States was backing the vote protests and accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving “a signal” to opposition leaders.
Protest leaders also reacted angrily to suggestions that the rallies were being hijacked by nationalist groups, who have been a prominent minority at previous vote fraud demonstrations.
“We can’t stop them coming,” said Ryzhkov. “But I want to make clear that we do not share their views.”
Opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, who initiated the recent protests, has made no secret of his nationalist views and his critics say he has been instrumental in allowing ultra-right viewpoints to be aired at the protests.
An alternative protest rally organized by liberal political figure Konstantin Borovoi - without the participation of “nationalists, ultra-nationalists and communists” - is also due to take place on Saturday.
Pro-Putin supporters and opponents of what they say are plans to launch an “Orange Revolution” in Russia are also due to rally at a separate location in Moscow. Some 15,000 people are expected to attend.
Organizers denied media reports earlier on Friday that state employees were being forced or paid to attend the rally.
“You don’t have to support Putin to understand that the Bolotnaya protests are turning into an Orange Revolution,” said TV anchor Sergei Kurginyan, the organizer of Saturday’s “Anti-Orange Rally.”
Kurginyan also accused opposition figures of working with foreign powers to destabilize Russia.
“But the people are waking up,” he said. “When opposition leaders were shown going to the U.S. embassy recently, support for Putin rose.”
A number of opposition figures were filmed visiting new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, at the United States embassy in January. A report entitled “US embassy: Receiving instructions from the new ambassador" was subsequently aired on state television.
Putin thanked late on Friday those people who planned to attend the rally in his support.
“I share their views,” he said.
He also warned people not to take children to the rally.
“It will be very cold tomorrow,” he added. “And everyone should be careful.”