REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Moscow’s Garden Ring street, a 10-mile circle around large portions of the city’s historic center, including the Kremlin, turned white on a frosty Sunday afternoon -- not with snow but with white ribbons, stickers, balloons, posters and inscriptions on thousands of cars participating in the latest large protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Organizers said at least 5,000 cars participated in the novel demonstration on wheels, billed as a dress rehearsal for a massive anti-Putin march slated for next weekend. Moscow police estimated that 300 vehicles took part.
In some areas, at least three lanes of one of the widest thoroughfares in the city were clogged with protest-mobiles. One car was exquisitely trimmed with articles of women’s white underwear. A large black utility vehicle had inscribed in large white letters on its side: “It is not black, it is … white.”
White has become the color of anti-Kremlin protests after demonstrators wore white ribbons during initial rallies last December to protest alleged fraud in parliamentary elections in which Putin’s ruling party received about 50% of the vote. Putin, who served as president for eight years before his current four-year premiere’s term, is expected to regain the presidency in the March election.
Opposition forces from the left to the right are seeking to unite to deny Putin an easy victory. The Solidarity movement, which organized the auto action via the Internet, issued a statement Sunday calling on people to vote in March -- but not for Putin. “Not a single vote for Putin, the leader of swindlers and thieves,” the statement said. “Vote for other candidates.”
Many people standing on the sidewalks Sunday stopped and waved at the protesters driving past. The motorists honked back.
“The protest against the regime is growing muscles,” said Yelena Panfilova, director of the Center for Anti-Corruption Research and Initiative Transparency International Russia. “People can hardly wait from one rally to another and they really enjoy this feeling of a joint civic action and display a lot of creativity.”
Olga Kiriyenko, a 30-year-old marketing manager, found herself in the middle of the action by chance when she was driving to a downtown skating rink -- and decided to become part of the show.
“I was surrounded by cars carrying white ribbons and balloons and I bent over backward where a white plastic shopping bag was lying on the back seat, took it, rolled down my window and tied the bag’s handles around the mirror,” she said.
The usually aggressive Moscow traffic suddenly turned friendly and relaxed, Kiriyenko added. “A driver in a white car in the next lane with a white flag sticking out from his back window smiled at me and showed me a thumb up.”
Putin will face four other candidates in March, including Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky was disqualified due to what officials said was a high percentage of errors in the 2 million signatures his backers gathered to register him for the ballot.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A car decorated with white balloons rolls down Moscow's Garden Ring street during an anti-Putin protest Sunday. Credit: Mikhail Metzel / Associated Press