Moscow prepared for rival rallies on Sunday between tens of thousands of Vladimir Putin supporters and members of Russia’s nascent protest movement ahead of his inauguration to a third Kremlin term.
Russia’s current premier will crown his thumping March presidential election victory with a glitzy inauguration on Monday that includes a booming 30-gun salute and a special blessing from Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill.
Over the weekend national television screens filled with teaser pictures of the ceremony, showing red carpets rolled out across grand Kremlin hallways and members of the presidential guard standing at attention as trumpets blared.
Leaders of the winter protests that gripped Moscow following fraud-tainted legislative polls in December had set Sunday as their target for showing the ex-KGB spy how far Russia had evolved since he dominated the country in 2000-2008.
They cancelled several rallies after mustering only a small fraction of the 100,000 people who joined the biggest Moscow demonstrations and announced plans for a “March of Millions” that would take the Russian capital by storm.
A campaign poster released over the social networks — the main front of their winter campaign — showed a stark black-and-white picture of Putin with a message for him to “Stop Lying and Stealing!”
But only 10,000 users had pledged their attendances on Russia’s VK Internet forum while police reports from the Siberian city of Irkutsk said only 70 protesters had come to an event organised for more than 1,000 people.
A police source in the Far East port of Vladivostok told Interfax that 50 had turned out for a march along that struggling city’s main road.
The demonstration along a main Moscow thoroughfare toward a square opposite the river from the Kremlin for its part was to conclude with a meeting that city authorities officially limited to 5,000 people.
The flagging protest numbers underscore the trouble the fractured movement — its ranks filled with everyone from veteran liberals to teenage Stalinists — will have in finding direction in the course of Putin’s six-year term.
The media has been dominated by the state since the Russian strongman’s first term while his 46-point win over his nearest rival underscores that criticism of party politics does not necessarily translate to Putin himself.
Yet Putin’s supporters made sure that the opposition did not get the last say before Monday’s ceremony by vowing to bring out more than 50,000 people for a “celebration” at Victory Park — a site dedicated to Russia’s 1812 defeat of Napoleon.
The event was to begin just two hours after the opposition rally and officially timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Putin’s decision to create a new movement called the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF).
The group is tipped to become Putin’s primary power base during the first of what could potentially become two new terms for the 59-year-old.
A top city official said Putin’s group did not need permission to bring out such large numbers onto a public square because “what they will be having is not a rally or a march or a protest.”
The entire transition from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev to his mentor has been tightly scripted from the moment their intended job swap was revealed to the public last year.
The plan will see Medvedev visit parliament only hours after Putin’s swearing-in ceremony to begin consultations that could see his candidacy for the premiership approved by Tuesday evening.