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October 29, 2004
Thousands at Rival Election Rallies
By Oksana Yablokova
A day before the State Duma was to consider in a first reading the much-criticized Kremlin plan to scrap the popular vote for governors, hundreds of people turned out at competing rallies Thursday in central Moscow to praise or denounce the legislation.
Some 300 activists of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, or SPS, gathered across the street from the Duma building to warn that the change would threaten democracy and issue an appeal to Duma deputies to reject the bill.
Across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, about 2,000 students and retirees bused in by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party rallied in support of the initiative and called for President Vladimir Putin's power to be further strengthened. The crowd later swelled to more than 8,000 people, police said, The Associated Press reported.
The Kremlin-controlled Duma is expected to easily pass the bill, which replaces direct gubernatorial elections with a system under which the president submits governors' names to regional legislatures for their confirmation. Putin, in proposing the change last month, said the state needs to be strengthened in response to the series of terrorist attacks that killed more than 400 people in August and September.
At the SPS rally outside the National Hotel, protesters carrying balloons and signs reading, "We're for Free Elections!" and "Abolishing Elections Is a Violation of the Constitution," said the bill signals a return to the Soviet past.
"Such initiatives will lead to a point when we will not participate in any popular elections at all," said SPS activist Lidia Izvolskaya, from Zelenograd, outside Moscow.
Ahead of the rally, organizers said they expected many opposition leaders to show up, including former SPS leaders Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, as well as Communist officials. However, only SPS supporters and its current leaders attended.
"The idea behind this rally is to show that there are people who disagree with what is going on," SPS leader Boris Nadezhdin said.
At Bolotnaya Ploshchad, students and retirees carried small signs reading, "For!" and larger signs reading "United Power -- United Russia!"
"I am here to support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and protest against aggression," said Yevgeny Solovyev, a 64-year-old retiree, AP reported.
Many young participants, however, had difficulty explaining the reason for the demonstration. Some students said their professors had ordered them to attend and told them they could not leave the rally without written permission from United Russia organizers. Others said they had been told that the rally was about education reforms.
State-controlled television showed footage of the United Russia rally in its early newscasts and ignored the SPS protest. By Thursday evening, though, it was airing reports about both.
Channel One television said rallies supporting Friday's bill were also held in many other cities.
In its afternoon newscast, the channel also showed footage of several young men attending the pro-Putin demonstration who said they were members of Yabloko.
Yabloko issued a statement saying none of its members had participated in the event and threatened to sue Channel One.
The channel's coverage of the rally later in the day made no mention of Yabloko.
The SPS rally, almost twice as large as sanctioned by city authorities, was a far cry from the huge demonstrations with thousands of people that it held several years earlier over alternative service and other Duma legislation.
SPS, founded by liberals Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, and Yabloko failed to win enough votes in December's elections to get seats in the Duma. Both parties have been teetering on the brink of collapse since.
The gubernatorial vote is the most controversial measure in a package of Kremlin election amendments that the Duma will consider Friday. At least two republics, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, have voiced opposition to the change, while the legislature in the Astrakhan region only backed it after being asked three times to do so.