Gorbachev calls on Putin to step down as protests grow
Russia's leadership was forced to defend its legitimacy yesterday after about 100,000 demonstrators rallied in central Moscow to demand democratic reform and fair elections in the largest wave of popular dissent since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The rally on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on Christmas Eve was the fourth and by far the biggest of the mass demonstrations provoked by the parliamentary vote held on December 4.
To add to the mounting pressure on the leadership, Mikhail Gorbachev, who resigned as Soviet president 20 years ago, has urged Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to follow his example and step down.
Speaking on radio yesterday, Mr Gorbachev said if Mr Putin stepped down now he would be remembered for the positive things he did during his 12 years in power.
The ruling United Russia party, led by the Mr Putin, held on to a slim majority in parliament during the December 4 elections, but the results have since been tainted by the opposition's claims of wholesale fraud.
The demonstrators stood for hours in sub-zero weather on Saturday listening to a diverse line-up of speakers, including TV celebrities, writers and scientists. "The people have stopped putting up with this humiliating regime," said Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front opposition group who was arrested during the first mass post-election rally on 5 December in Moscow.
The government has only three months before the March 4 presidential elections, when Mr Putin will seek to return for a third term as president. That mantle had been handed to Dmitry Medvedev, with Mr Putin taking the number two role, but few questioned where the real power lay.
With no viable competitors, Mr Putin is likely to win, but the legitimacy of his mandate could be eroded by the ongoing tide of discontent. His approval ratings have fallen to historic lows, with one survey conducted this month by the independent Levada Centre showing that only 36pc of voters are willing to cast their ballots for Mr Putin.
In response to the crisis of legitimacy, the government has scrambled to offer reforms in the hope of placating the opposition. On Friday, the Kremlin introduced laws into parliament that would make it easier for new opposition parties to take part in elections. (© Independent News Service)