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Putin joins mass Soviet-style May Day march

Vladimir Putin led the largest May Day march in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union (© 2009 AFP)

Russia’s president-elect Vladimir Putin on Tuesday joined over 150,000 people in a Soviet-style march through Moscow to celebrate labour day and show off public support ahead of his inauguration.

Accompanied by kitsch brass music and surrounded by multi-coloured balloons, Putin and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev led the most extensive May Day march in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Police said around 150,000 people took part in the “Holiday of Labour and Spring” march in Moscow, by coincidence similar to the numbers said by the opposition to have shown up at anti-Putin demonstrations over the last months.

The authorities appear keen to revive worker celebrations and make May Day a centrepiece of the year as Putin seeks to hold onto popular support as he heads back to the Kremlin in defiance of the anti-government protests.

Marchers unfurled huge banners proclaiming the names of their factories and unions as bands played rousing music that could have been taken from the score of a Soviet film.

“The Union of Machine Builders! Hurray!” declaimed the announcer as another workers group filed past the town hall on Moscow’s Tverskaya Avenue.

In an event that struck a chord with those nostalgic for the mass parades projecting Russian power in Soviet years, the crowds packed the avenue from the Kremlin to its end as far as the eye could see.

Wearing a suit without a tie under the bright spring skies, Putin led the march next to a white overcoat-clad Medvedev and surrounded by supportive banners like “Workers for Medvedev and Putin!”.

It was the first time for years that Russia’s rulers had joined the May Day rally, a key day in the calendar in the Communist Soviet Union. The last such appearance is believed to have been by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

In a highly unusual joint public appearance on the streets of Moscow, Putin and Medvedev mingled with some of the marchers. “How are you doing?” asked Medvedev. “Great!” chorused the workers.

“Let’s do this every year, let’s make it a tradition!” one participant suggested to Russia’s top two, while others asked about burning issues like how they stayed in such good form and if they read horoscopes.

In another move to gladden Soviet nostalgia fans, the pair then popped in with their entourage to the Zhiguli bar in central Moscow, a venue renowned back in Soviet times as a place for cheap beer and less-than-sober chatter.

Sat on benches around a table laden with Russian delicacies like dried salted fish, they clanked mugs of beer and tucked into a meal, television pictures showed.

A march organised by the Communist Party — still the largest official opposition to ruling party United Russia — paled in comparison and attracted 3,500 people, police said.

Putin is due to be inaugurated as president in a May 7 ceremony after his March 4 election victory which the opposition claims was de-legitimised by fraud.

He is returning to the Kremlin job he held from 2000-2008 after a four year stint as prime minister while the post of head of state was occupied by Medvedev, who was widely ridiculed as a seat-warmer.

Putin appears to be counting on the working-class as the bedrock of his support as he heads into his six year term with Russia’s burgeoning white collar middle class increasingly critical of his rule.

The anti-Putin opposition decided against holding a rally in Moscow on May 1 and instead are saving their forces for a so-called “march of millions” on May 6 which they hope will attract over 100,000 people to challenge the strongman.

Signature : Stuart Williams MOSCOW (AFP)

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