Drivers Circle Moscow in Anti-Putin Protest
Hundreds of Moscow drivers flying white balloons and ribbons circled the Kremlin on Sunday in noisy protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's likely return as president in March 4 polls.
The second such auto rally in three weeks was due to be picked up in other cities as the opposition sought to keep up momentum after launching the biggest wave of anti-Putin rallies in his 12-year rule in December.
"The closer we manage to get to the Kremlin, the more effective this event will be," the protest movement's League of Voters said in a statement.
Nearly 3,500 people had signed up for the event on its Facebook page by the time the afternoon event started in Moscow under a bright winter sky.
"We all have to come out by 5:00 pm," Russian celebrity and popular TV personality Xenia Sobchak told private Dozhd television. "Don't be afraid if they start throwing snowballs at you."
An AFP reporter saw dozens of cheering pedestrians flashing victory signs to cars circling along the 16-kilometer (10-mile) Garden Ring Road with everything from white flags to plastic bags tied to their handles and antennas.
"Volodya, It's Time to Go," said a sign on one Moscow car with a young couple in the front seat, using the diminutive of Vladimir.
But some witnesses reported seeing cars emblazoned with small portraits of Putin getting into the stream of traffic and then stopping their vehicles in an apparent bid to interrupt the procession.
A similar rally's organizer in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod told Moscow Echo radio that he was wrestled to the ground and beaten up by an unknown assailant moments after leaving his house for the event.
The anti-Putin movement intends to spread its reach beyond Russia on Sunday by holding mini-rallies in Paris as well as San Francisco and New York.
Russia has witnessed a month of weekly rival rallies between Putin foes and his state-backed supporters in advance of elections that the 59-year-old former KGB spy is almost certain to win.
A poll of likely voters conducted by the Kremlin-linked Public Opinion Foundation showed Putin reclaiming the seat he held from 2000 to 2008 with 60 percent support.
Putin's youth movement backers attempted to steal the opposition's thunder by quickly arranging their own car run around the Garden Ring Road on Saturday night.
They displayed pictures of Putin -- looking youthful and wearing sunglasses that played up his strongman credentials -- and floated Russian flags from their cars in an event the city police said drew 2,000 vehicles.
"With Putin Driving, Everything Will Go Smoothly," one sign said.
"Putin in the Driver's Seat," said another slogan stamped on hundreds of cars.
State television showed some participants blasting Louis Armstrong's "Blueberry Hill" in commemoration of Putin's surprise performance of the jazz classic at a charity event two years ago.
At least 50,000 people attended rallies in support of Putin across Russia on Saturday in advance of a mass demonstration called for Thursday in Moscow on Defenders of the Fatherland Day.
The opposition for its part intends to create a human chain around the Garden Ring next Sunday.
For Fair Elections movement member Sergei Parkhomenko said the group also intended to put in a request with the city to stage a rally in Moscow on March 5, when early presidential election results are to be announced.