MOSCOW — Thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters donned white ribbons and held hands along Moscow's 10-mile ring highway on Sunday, demonstrating the resilience of the protest movement and continued dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a week before he is to run in a crucial presidential election.
The Kremlin has been shaken by the recent emergence of the protest movement among middle-class Muscovites, who only a few months ago were considered to be largely politically inert. Tens of thousands have faced subzero temperatures, occasional arrests, and the loss of weekend shopping time to attend several boisterous protests against Putin's rule.
On Sunday, amid slush-clogged streets and a steady snow, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, with vendors handing out free hot tea and pancakes to mark the last day before Orthodox Lent. The protest was called the Big White Circle after the movement's color, and demonstrators arrived decked out in full length white furs and huge white hats. White is their symbol for a clean government.
Yet despite the upbeat mood, few had any illusions about the results of the election on Sunday.
"I'm afraid that the results of the election have already been determined and Putin will win," said Olga Abashkina, 54, a teacher. "This will be the official result, though it is not clear if it will actually be the case."
That eventuality has hung over the protest movement almost since it began in December over allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections. Though dissatisfaction with Putin in Moscow and several other large cities is high, he still enjoys broad support among rural and blue-collar voters. Even without blatant fraud, most polls suggest that Putin could win more than 50 percent of the vote. Despite a few sparse patches, protesters filled most of the length of the 10-mile highway, suggesting that enthusiasm for the movement was not on the wane.