MOSCOW – Tens of thousands of Russians protested across the country Saturday against a law replacing transportation and medical benefits for pensioners with cash payments, but were countered by massive rival demonstrations organized by pro-Kremlin forces.
The Communist-backed protest calling for the government's ouster was the most widespread in President Vladimir Putin's (search) five years in power. It was also the first time that pro-Putin groups took to the streets over the reform.
The overhaul, which took effect Jan. 1, replaces cherished benefits such as free transportation for pensioners and other groups with cash payments that many say are sorely inadequate. The reform has dented Putin's popularity and on Thursday prompted an unsuccessful Communist-led no-confidence vote in parliament against the government.
An Interior Ministry (search) spokesman said nearly 240,000 Russians demonstrated across the country, but the ministry did not have a breakdown between the pro- and anti-Putin rallies. A Communist Party (search) official claimed that the anti-Putin protests drew more than 200,000 nationwide.
In Moscow, some 3,000 people, mostly elderly pensioners, gathered under red hammer-and-sickle flags near a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin on the edge of downtown, calling for the replacement of Russia's leadership.
"The state has robbed us; we are outraged," said Nina Gulicheva, 80, banging a wooden spoon against a metal pot. "I voted for Putin, but now I bitterly regret it and want to take back my vote."
Across the Moscow river, a much larger crowd organized by the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, marched down the capital's main street in support of Putin — part of the major effort to counter the nationwide Communist protests, which had been announced weeks in advance.
Demonstrators held signs saying, "Putin, we are with you!" and "Communists, stop fooling grandmothers!"
"Our president is now being attacked by some people and we came here to show him we are with him," said Andrei Bogomolov, a 23-year-old Moscow student.
Organizers claimed 40,000 people attended the rally, the Interfax news agency reported. The Interior Ministry put the number at 30,000.
Many demonstrators said they had been bused to the rally from Moscow suburbs. Kirill, an 18-year-old political science student who declined to give his last name, said he and his friends had been promised movie tickets by the organizers if they showed up.
"These rallies show the presidential administration is very much afraid of the tendency of Putin's rating falling," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank. "The current political system hangs only this thin thread of Putin's political rating."
At least one pensioner was beaten by police during the Moscow protest. The Interfax news agency reported that a member of a radical leftist group called Avangard Red Youth said he was also beaten by law enforcement officers when the group tried to block a street.
In St. Petersburg, scene of some of the largest protests over the reform, pro- and anti-Putin protests each appeared to attract about 5,000 people Saturday, though Interfax said only 2,500 attended the pro-Putin rally.
Eleven people were arrested for disturbing the peace after firecrackers, snowballs and an egg were thrown at St. Petersburg's top lawmaker while he addressed the pro-Putin rally there, Interfax reported.
State-run television focused on the pro-Putin rallies, with the Rossiya channel showing footage from several cities where it said those crowds were larger than the competing protests.
With its close ties to the federal government and local authorities, United Russia has levers to draw demonstrators for rallies.
Only 112 deputies of the 450-seat State Duma backed Thursday's no-confidence motion, which needed a simple majority of 226 votes to pass in the lower house. But most members of United Russia, which has more than 300 seats, refrained from voting in an attempt to distance themselves from the benefits reform.