Gorbachev urges Putin to step down after protests

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MOSCOW (AP) — Mikhail Gorbachev, who resigned as Soviet president 20 years ago Sunday, has urged Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to follow his example and step down.

Gorbachev says if Putin stepped down now he would be remembered for the positive things he did during his 12 years in power.

The former Soviet leader spoke on Ekho Moskvy radio Saturday after a demonstration against Putin drew tens of thousands in Moscow. It was the largest show of public outrage since the protests in 1991 that brought down the Soviet Union.

The 80-year-old Gorbachev carries little weight in Russia today. And while many Russians have grown weary with Putin’s rule, his opponents are split among numerous groups. They have no clear leader who could challenge Putin in the March presidential election.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

MOSCOW (AP) — Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Saturday cheered opposition leaders and jeered the Kremlin in the biggest show of outrage yet against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule.

The Moscow demonstration was even bigger than a similar rally two weeks ago, signaling that the protest movement ignited by the fraud-tainted Dec. 4 parliamentary election may be growing. Protests were also held in dozens of other cities and towns across Russia.

Rally participants densely packed a broad avenue, which has room for nearly 100,000 people, about 2.5 kilometers (some 1.5 miles) from the Kremlin, as the temperature dipped well below freezing. They chanted “Russia without Putin!”

A stage at the end of the 700-meter (0.43 mile) avenue featured placards reading “Russia will be free” and “This election Is a farce.” Heavy police cordons encircled the participants, who stood within metal barriers, and a police helicopter hovered overhead.

Alexei Navalny, a corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, electrified the crowd when he took the stage. A rousing speaker, he had protesters shouting “We are the power!”

Navalny spent 15 days in jail for leading a protest on Dec. 5 that unexpectedly drew more than 5,000 people and set off the chain of demonstrations. Since his release, he has helped to further galvanize the opposition.

Putin’s United Russia party lost 25 percent of its seats in the election, but hung onto a majority in parliament through what independent observers said was widespread fraud. United Russia, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy, has become known as the party of crooks and thieves, a phrase coined by Navalny.

“We have enough people here to take the Kremlin,” he shouted to the crowd. “But we are peaceful people and we won’t do that — yet. But if these crooks and thieves keep cheating us, we will take what is ours.”

The recent protests in Moscow and other cities have dented Putin’s authority as he seeks to reclaim the presidency in a March vote. The Kremlin has responded by promising a set of political reforms that would allow more political competition in future elections.

But protest leaders say they will continue pushing for a rerun of the parliamentary election and punishment for officials accused of vote fraud. They say maintaining momentum is key to forcing Putin’s government to accept their demands.

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