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Russian protestors demand elections as crisis bites
Sat Feb 21, 2009 12:37pm EST
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By Valery Stepchenkov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's opposition rallied about 350 people in central Moscow on Saturday to demand early presidential elections, the latest sign of public anger over the government's handling of a deepening economic crisis.
Russia's leaders are trying cope with the worst slump in at least a decade and investors are closely watching for any signs of growing discontent as unemployment soars.
"The crisis is neither financial, nor economic, but deep and systemic," Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister turned opposition leader, told the crowd.
"We demand the unconditional end of this government and call for new elections in six months," Kasyanov said, referring to the presidential election not due until 2012.
Activists blamed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev for the crisis, chanting "down with the authorities" and holding banners saying "Putin plus Medvedev equals crisis."
Kremlin officials dismiss such criticism as the ravings of marginal politicians and radicals, though Medvedev has called for officials to better explain the crisis and appeared to reprimand Putin on Friday for a slow response to the crisis.
"We are working very slowly, unacceptably slowly for a crisis," Medvedev said on Friday.
The Moscow rally, sanctioned by city officials, builds upon a series of Russia-wide protests that brought thousands of people onto the streets of major cities three weeks ago to demand political change.
Saturday's protesters carried orange placards reminiscent of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" protests in neighboring Ukraine, which swept a pro-Western government to power.
Though the protesters were relatively few in number, the Kremlin is sensitive to public criticism of its policies.
Russia's splintered opposition groups say the crisis will show the weakness of the country's economy and drive people to topple Putin and Medvedev.
"There is every reason to believe that the crisis in the government has already begun," opposition leader Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion, told Reuters in front of a stage draped in orange banners.
"Political change has become unavoidable this year."
Protests in the capital rarely attract more than 150 people and are often disbanded by the police.
"Either people are too repressed or just too afraid to stand up against the government," said Sergei, a young engineer who took part in the rally. "But I think the entire country is feeling the economic situation." Continued...
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