EU official predicts major anti-Putin rally
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has predicted there will be a big turnout at a pro-democracy rally in Moscow on Saturday (4 February).
Reading to MEPs from a written statement in Brussels on Wednesday, she said: "The protests that started in December are set to continue. The movement has grown and we can expect a large mobilisation this Saturday."
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She added: "There is a rising group of people calling for real participation, for more decisive measures to rein in corruption and impunity, and to give more breathing space to democratic processes. And they are ready to express their opinion. Peacefully."
She castigated Prime Minister Putin for saying he will "swap jobs" with the president in an election due on 4 March. She also told Putin to let an opposition candidate - Grigory Yavlinsky - run in the vote.
In unscripted comments, she noted her envoys report a "change in the atmosphere" in Russia and that "things are beginning to change."
Most MEPs from the mainstream political groups backed Ashton's line.
German left-winger Knut Fleckenstein, who heads the parliament's Russia delegation, said: "We need to express solidarity for those who in recent days and months have joined the protests."
But for her part, Monika Flasikova Benova, a left-wing MEP from Slovakia, said the EU should put its own house in order on increasingly authoritarian countries, such as Hungary, before finger-wagging at Russia.
She was quickly pulled up by Polish centre-right deputy Marek Migalksi, who said: "Are you seriously making a comparison between these two countries [Hungary and Russia]?"
Facebook petitions indicate that 25,000-or-so people plan to attend the rally in Moscow. Thousands more are expected at pro-Putin counter-marches.
If the numbers live up to expectations, it will be the third major demonstration since international monitors last December said parliamentary elections were rigged.
"The EU should clearly say that the elections were not free and fair ... People in Russia need to hear this. Then it will be up to us to take the next step," Russian opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov told EUobserver in a recent interview.