(MOSCOW) — Vladimir Putin take note: Among the balloons, ribbons, flowers and placards in the huge crowd gathered Saturday on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospect to urge you not to run for a third term as President, one stood out. It showed you standing next to Libya’s now-dead dictator, Muammar Gadhafi. The Russian words on the sign, “YOU ARE GOING ALONG THE SAME ROAD, COMRADE.”
It is impossible to miss the meaning of the message. Leaders who abuse their position can face unpleasant ends.
Arab Spring, meet Russian Winter.
It is not clear where the anti-Putin protest movement is going, but the staggering size of Saturday’s rally suggests it is gaining momentum. The official tally by the Russian government puts the crowd at 29,000. But, of course, the Putin government has every reason to underestimate the crowd. Other estimates put the crowd at somewhere between 56,000 and 100,000. By most accounts it was at least twice as big as the first anti-Putin rally held two weeks ago.
The number of people in attendance Saturday is particularly impressive when one mingles among them. It is biting cold here; a damp penetrating cold that no amount of clothing seems adequate to resist. Standing, shivering in the same place for four hours listening to speeches and music on a day like this is a true test of democratic ideals.
“Our goal is not only to push out certain people from power,” liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinksy told the crowd from a stage adorned with banners reading “Russia Will Be Free.” Then he added,” Our goal is to change the system that we have today, which is corrupt, venal, closed and illegitimate.”
“Russia without Putin,” the crowd chanted in response. The once-and-future president may have thought that he could sail effortlessly into a third term, sealing his position as an autocrat with a sham election, but these demonstrations make it clear many of the Russian people have had enough.
There is a widespread sense that Putin is all about himself and his friends, that he does not care about rampant corruption or the collapse of agriculture, education or healthcare.
Putin’s own former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, has joined the anti-Putin protest movement.
“Russia is not a democracy,” he says. “Russia has never been a democracy, but Russia started to build up democracy. In the last five years, Putin has destroyed all the foundation that we had been building. We don’t have free media, we don’t have independent judiciary and we just lost the final part: free elections. This autocratic way of ruling is unacceptable.”
But Putin has given no signals that he gets the message. Instead, he appeared on national TV a week ago and dismissed the first protest saying: “I know the young people were paid to attend.” He accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of footing the bill. Then he crassly dismissed the white peace ribbons the protesters wore, saying he thought they were condoms.
Saturday, the protesters fought back with dark humor of their own. Some wore condoms on their lapels, one sported a sign saying, “Hillary, I’m still waiting for my money.”
But more than anything they answered Putin in numbers. This protest was so big, so well-organized, so peaceful that Putin ignores it at his peril.
Organizers say there will be a third anti-Putin rally, probably in late January. And they vow they will get even more people onto the streets.
It’s going to be an interesting winter in Russia.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio