40,000 attend Moscow pro-Putin rally

MOSCOW (AFP) - Tens of thousands of strongman Vladimir Putin's supporters rallied Saturday near the Kremlin walls, a year after protests in neighbouring Ukraine led to the fall of its pro-Russian president.

The demonstrators, some dressed in fatigues, waved Russian flags and many sported the black and orange St George ribbon, a symbol of victory over Nazi Germany that pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have adopted as their badge of honour.

Police said up to 40,000 people turned out with around 1,000 attending a similar rally in the second city of Saint Petersburg.

Critics claimed many were paid to attend or bussed in.

"Yankee go home and take the Maidan with you," read one massive banner referring to Ukraine's pro-Western uprising that came to be known as the Maidan protests.

"We don't need Western ideology and gay parades," said another placard, while a column of Cossacks brandished a banner reading "The Maidan is a disease. We will treat it."

Established early this year, the umbrella movement that organised the rally, Anti-Maidan, includes several groups representing bikers, Cossacks, athletes and Russian veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars, some of whom have fought alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Members employed highly emotive, aggressive language to rouse the crowd at the apparently choreographed event in support of Putin, who has accused the West of stirring the Ukraine unrest.

"I am calling on you to rally around the Russian president at a time when all of Russia's enemies are mobilising," Alexander Zaldostanov, the leather-clad leader of biker gang the Night Wolves, told the rally.

One organiser, Nikolai Starikov, speaking from the stage, called the Kiev protests "a smile of an American ambassador" and an "embryo of Goebbels," referring to Hitler's propaganda minister.

"A Maidan will not take place in Russia," announced singer Victoria Tsyganova, dressed in a red coat and red kerchief.

'YANKEE GO HOME'

The instantly recognisable strains of The Holy War, a famous World War II-era song, emanated from loudspeakers.

A worker from UralVagonZavod, a maker of battle tanks in the Urals - which publicly supported Putin during the height of winter protests in 2011-2012 - accused the opposition of betraying Russia reeling from the effects of the economic crisis and Western sanctions.

"Now that the country is going through hardships the opposition are rubbing their hands," said Alexei Balyberdin.

"I fully support Putin's policies," said a 37-year-old demonstrator, Ivan Blagoi in St Petersburg.

"I don't want the collapse of the country and a civil war brought on in Ukraine by the Maidan."

Critics say the Moscow event was organised with the help from authorities, with many participants brought in on buses or paid to be there. Organisers deny the claims.

After the Kiev uprising ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych last February, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and has since backed a separatist insurgency in the east of the country.

Starikov said the march was the movement's first major rally aimed at discouraging the pro-Western opposition from plotting a coup in Russia.

"Don't even try. Don't make any attempts to rock the boat in Russia," he said in televised remarks.

State television gave ample coverage to Saturday's event and said similar rallies had been held across the country.

'I'LL BE BACK'

The opposition plans a protest on March 1 against the Ukraine conflict as well as Russia's economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by Western sanctions over Moscow's support for the separatists.

Earlier this week, a court jailed top opposition activist Alexei Navalny for two weeks in a move that will most likely prevent him from leading next weekend's rally.

The protest is set to take place in southeastern Moscow, after authorities denied permission for the activists to march through the city centre.

Putin remains Russia's most popular politician despite hardships brought on by the economic crisis and Western sanctions.

Ukraine's ousted leader Yanukovych, who lives in Russia sheltered from prosecution back at home, said he would like to return to his country as soon as he can.

"I'll be back and will do everything in my power to make life easier in Ukraine," he told Russia's Channel One in an excerpt of interview which will be broadcast in its entirety on Monday.