Anger at Putin Flares in Irkutsk and Samara

Protester in Irkutsk. Source: ITAR-TASSRussians demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in large demonstrations in two different cities over the weekend, reports the online newspaper.

An estimated two thousand people attended a protest in the Siberian city of Irkutsk on Saturday, and another 1200 people attended an unrelated protest in the city of Samara on the same day. Among other demands, both groups had harsh criticism for the prime minister and called for him to immediately step down.

In Irkutsk, residents, workers, and environmental activists gathered to protest the reopening of the controversial Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill. After decades of protests, operations at the mill were finally suspended in October 2008 due to environmental concerns regarding the mill’s discharge of toxic waste into Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, a decree signed by Prime Minister Putin in mid-January allowed the mill to reopen, sparking renewed outrage from citizens and environmental activists internationally.

A coalition of ecological and civic organizations organized Saturday’s protest, and politicians from the local legislative assembly and Moscow showed up to support the effort. Leader Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal Yabloko Party and co-leader Vladimir Milov of the Solidarity opposition movement were among those present. Activists from the banned National Bolshevik Party also attended the protest, holding a banner reading “People! Baikal! Victory!” – the acronym of which matches with the acronym of their party name in Russian.

Protesters singled out oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has control over the mill, and Prime Minister Putin, who they accuse of covering up Deripaska’s unethical business practices, as the main targets of their enmity.

Irkutsk city officials had warned prior to the rally that security would be tight. Blaming “the current economic situation of Russia” for an increase in opposition protests, Deputy Internal Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky promised that “no excuses will be accepted” for failures of the police to curb demonstrations.

Given that, the city dispatched a number of armored military vehicles to flank the demonstration. Photographs published online of the vehicles, one of which resembles a small tank, were decried on Tuesday by the Russian Internal Ministry as “provocational and not corresponding to reality.” In a statement to, Solidarity activist Ilya Yashin maintained that “my colleague Vladimir Milov took these photographs, and many people saw these machines.”

The increase in police forces was especially notable because of the comparatively small security presence at a January 30 rally in Kaliningrad, where 12 thousand people gathered to protest rising tariffs and to demand the resignations of the prime minister and local Governor Georgy Boos.

Demonstrators at a counter-protest in Irkutsk organized by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party praised the reopening of the mill, with between a thousand and 1500 participants holding banners with the phrases “Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill – our life” and “Thanks to the government for the opportunity to work in Baikalsk.” One placard directed at opponents of the mill read “Suitcase – Station – UNESCO.”

In contrast to their choices during the Kaliningrad rally, the regional branches of the token opposition groups Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and A Just Russia sided with the United Russia counter-demonstration. State Duma Deputy and LDPR member Andrei Lugovoy, who is wanted by a British court for suspicion in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, travelled from Moscow to address the crowd.

The second protest, in Samara, was initially intended to be held “in defense of constitutional rights and freedoms.” In addition, however, protesters turned out to voice their disapproval of numerous governmental practices, including rising housing and utilities tariffs, crumbling infrastructure, and the failed modernization of the local AvtoVAZ automobile manufacturer. Among their concrete demands were the return of direct gubernatorial elections and the resignations of Prime Minister Putin and Samara Governor Vladimir Artyakov, who is also the former head of AvtoVAZ.

A number of civic and labor organizations took part in the rally in Samara, including the All-Russian Strike Committee, which was invited by AvtoVAZ factory workers. According to Committee coordinator Nikolai Nikolaev, several groups of auto workers from the cities of Tolyatti and Syzran were unable to attend the demonstration because police had blocked off the road.

Given the failed modernization of the auto manufacturer, Nikolayev said after the rally, “people discussed the issue of how to live from now on. The AvtoVAZ workers said that the authorities are not dealing with their problems.”

In their own way of dealing with their problems, regional police in Samara are planning to initiate criminal charges against the rally’s organizers. During the demonstration, voters rights activist Aleksandr Lashmankin called for participants to stage a repeat demonstration on March 5 – a statement that “was not covered in the application to hold the rally,” a police representative explained to the Interfax news agency.