Opposition Says the Problem Is Putin

ReutersCommunist supporters calling on the government to protect workers during a rally in St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Opposition leaders accused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday of wasting billions of dollars in public funds and said he was the country's main obstacle to coping with the global financial crisis.

At a news briefing largely ignored by state media, two former deputy ministers and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov said the government had lied about the country's economic problems and laid out their alternative strategy.

"To begin with, we need the resignation of Vladimir Putin's government, which in this crisis has demonstrated its complete helplessness and ridiculous incompetence," the opposition movement Solidarity said in a statement.

Solidarity, an umbrella movement supported by anti-government liberals, includes former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov and Kasparov, who hosted the briefing.

Two weekends ago, the opposition held a series of anti-government marches across the country that attracted a few thousand people -- mainly old Communists and young radicals. On Saturday, Communists rallied in St. Petersburg to call on the government to protect workers during the financial crisis. They carried banners reading "Give Workers Worthy Wages," "Put Government Money into Production" and "No Capitalism -- No Crisis."

The opposition expects a weakening economy to create more support for rallies and to undermine the government.

Since last summer, the ruble has dropped by about 35 percent and reserves have shrunk by 40 percent to about $385 billion because of state support of the ruble and the low price of oil.

"This is wrong," Milov said. "We don't want to waste the money on defending the ruble, which will devalue anyway. We want to give the money directly to the people to compensate for the negative consequences of ruble depreciation."

Most Russians earn only a few hundred dollars a month, and the opposition said they wanted to direct the oil wealth to the poorest Russians -- a section of society they need to woo.

"We want to use the reserves to help with the social consequences and not burn them at this stage" on defending the ruble, Milov said.

Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev remain popular despite the economic downturn, while support for opposition groups is low.

But Kasparov said it was just a matter of time until support for anti-government opposition gathered momentum.

"We debate among ourselves when the support will come, but there is no doubt it will happen," he said.