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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Red, Orange and Tricolor Rallies

APMore than 40,000 people marching down Tverskaya Ulitsa in a United Russia-organized show of support for Putin on Saturday.
Pensioners carrying red hammer-and-sickle flags, municipal workers holding United Russia banners, and young people wearing orange scarves paralyzed central Moscow on Saturday at rallies and counter-rallies over President Vladimir Putin and his social reforms.

More than a quarter-million people took to the streets at nationwide rallies Saturday to demand the resignation of Putin and the government or to show their support for Putin in the biggest demonstrations yet over a Kremlin-backed law that replaced state benefits with meager cash allowances as of Jan. 1.

A total of 257,000 people attended 238 rallies in 70 cities, from St. Petersburg in the northwest to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the Far East, the Interior Ministry said. Some 21,600 police officers and 3,700 soldiers were on hand to maintain order.

In the biggest single rally, more than 40,000 people marched down Tverskaya Ulitsa on Saturday morning in a United Russia-organized rally. It was the first show of support for Putin and the government after weeks of national protests against the reforms by tens of thousands of pensioners.

But many of the young and middle-aged participants complained that the rally was not their idea of how to spend a Saturday morning and said they had been bussed in from the suburbs. Ekho Moskvy radio said municipal workers were promised bonuses and students awarded extra credit for showing up, while soldiers were just ordered to take part.

Marchers carried national flags, United Russia banners and portraits of Putin, as well as posters reading, "We Are for Stability," "Putin: Create a United Russia," and "Communists, Stop Making Fools Out of Old People."

The rally -- a clear attempt to raise Putin's popularity ratings, which have fallen 20 percentage points over the past year -- received broad coverage on state television. But state television ignored the demonstrations calling for Putin and the government to resign.

As United Russia held its march near the Kremlin, a crowd of 3,500 mostly elderly people converged at a Communist Party rally under the towering statue of Lenin on Kaluzhskaya Ploshchad in southcentral Moscow. Carrying red flags with the Soviet hammer and sickle, people chanted, "Long live socialist Russia!" and called on Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's Cabinet to resign. One banner read, "Down with Putin and his criminal entourage."

"Millions of citizens want the government of Fradkov and Putin to resign," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told the protesters.

On the edge of the crowd, a young police officer heckled a cluster of protesters from behind a metal barricade. Police detained a Moscow Times photographer and forced him to delete some photographs he had taken of OMON police commandos at the rally.

Michael Eckels / MT

A crowd of about 3,500 mostly elderly people carrying red flags at the Communist rally on Kaluzhskaya Ploshchad on Saturday.

About 200 meters away from the Communist rally, the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party held a counter-rally of about 50 people and offered hot tea and coffee. "The Communists, who are gathering not very far from our site, have been promising the same thing for 100 years," party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said, handing out banknotes of 50 rubles to 500 rubles to passersby. "We are a real party, and we are ready to help people. This is what we are doing today."

On Saturday afternoon, some 700 mainly young people turned up on Pushkin Square for a rally organized by the liberal Council of Public Solidarity, a group of nongovernmental organizations and independent trade unions formed last year to oppose the reform.

Young members of the Young Yabloko party wearing orange scarves and bandannas also attended the rally. "The orange I'm wearing does not mean that I support the current Ukrainian leadership, but it is a symbol of freedom and democracy for me," said Alexei Leontyev, 22. "People achieved what they wanted in Ukraine, and I want the same for Russia."

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko recently took office after his country's Orange Revolution -- weeks of peaceful mass protests over the fraudulent election of his opponent.

On Pushkin Square, people chanted, "Down with the tsar," and "Freedom for political prisoners," in a reference to jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Some waved red flags.

State Duma Deputy Oleg Shein, who heads a small trade union affiliated with the Council of Public Solidarity, asked for a show of hands in favor of the ouster of Putin and the government. The motion passed by a comfortable margin.

Shein, a member of the nationalist Rodina party, called for a national referendum to freeze the implementation of the benefits law until it can be amended to protect recipients' living standards.

Saturday's rallies came after the Duma on Thursday rejected a no-confidence motion put forward by Communist and independent deputies. Only 112 deputies in the 450-seat Duma backed the motion, which needed a simple majority of 226 votes to pass.

Tens of thousands of angry pensioners took to the streets last month in largely spontaneous protests after losing a range of benefits, including free public transportation, in return for cash compensation.

In most regions, rattled local authorities have now restored or promised free or subsidized transportation for pensioners, while the federal government has rushed to pump several billion dollars into raising pensions and subsidies for the regions.

Moscow streets were cordoned off by more than 4,000 police officers Saturday, while extra police officers were posted in metro stations near the rallies. Many central streets were closed to traffic.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Police keeping back protesters who tried to block traffic Saturday in central Moscow.

In St. Petersburg, about 5,000 people took part in two marches -- one against the monetization of benefits and the other in support of Putin. Interfax reported that 2,500 people carrying national flags and United Russia banners attended the pro-Putin rally. About an equal number of people near a statue of Lenin called on Putin to resign.

Ekho Moskvy reported that 11 members of the radical National Bolshevik Party and the new Moving Without Putin movement were detained for attempting to disrupt the pro-Putin march.

In all, more than 40,000 people in 26 cities took to the streets in northwest Russia, while more than 80,000 demonstrated in Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov and other cities in the Volga regions, Itar-Tass reported.

More than 23,000 people participated in protests against the social reforms in Krasnoyarsk and 23 other cities in Siberia. Over 5,000 people protested in the Primorye region, while 1,000 people demonstrated on Sakhalin Island.

More than 2,000 people rallied in 13 cities and towns in the Urals, while over 10,000 gathered in 27 cities in the southern regions.

There were no serious clashes between pro- and anti-Putin supporters, the Interior Ministry said.