MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thousands of black-clad Russian nationalists marched through central Moscow on Sunday, marking a “National Unity Day” holiday created by Vladimir Putin by calling for an end to his rule and voicing hostility to ethnic minorities.
Putin instituted the holiday in 2005 to replace the annual Soviet-era celebration of the Bolshevik revolution. But civil rights activists say his own flirtation with ethnic nationalism has stoked a rise in far-right violence, and is partly to blame for the hijacking of the holiday by hardline militants.
The marchers, mainly young men with closely cropped hair in black leather jackets, shouted “Russia without Putin” and anti-immigrant slogans, carrying Russian Orthodox icons, waving imperial flags and chanting “Russia for Russians”.
Police said 6,000 people turned out under grey skies for Sunday’s far-right rally, which was given official permission for the first time to march through the heart of Moscow.
Many expressed hostility to migrants from Russia’s own mainly Muslim southern regions and other parts of the former Soviet Union, saying Russia should tighten its visa requirements and bolster domestic restrictions on internal migration.
“All the jobs go to newcomers, that’s why I think the aim of this march is to get Russian jobs to Russians,” Igor, a protester who refused to give his last name and hid his face behind a medical mask, told Reuters.
The newly-reconstituted holiday commemorates a Moscow uprising against Polish-Lithuanian occupation 400 years ago. Putin marked it at an event flanked by leaders of the Russian Orthodox Christian church and the three other faiths the Kremlin regards as traditional in Russia - Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.
“People united their forces in the name of Russia, in name of the Motherland, rising above class, national, religious and other differences,” Putin said after laying a wreath at a Red Square monument. “People freed Moscow and the country from the occupiers and those who sold and betrayed Russia.”
Putin has begun a new, six-year presidential term this year after mass rallies against him led by liberals, the biggest signs of discontent since he came to power on millennium eve.
Sunday’s march was mostly calm although some protesters made Nazi-style salutes and set off smoke bombs. Police said 25 were detained for wearing swastika arm-bands and trenchcoats.
Others had red, black and yellow pre-revolutionary flags and some marched behind large icons, highlighting the church’s role as a marker of national identity.
Many risked fines under a new law banning masks at rallies - covering their noses and mouths with scarves and nationalist flags, although not the black ski masks that characterized demonstrators at previous right wing “Russian Marches”.
Russian law restricts the right of provincials to live and work in Moscow, but unemployment pushes many to seek jobs in the capital, including members of ethnic minorities from Russia’s poor and violence-prone mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus and from other ex-Soviet states.
Lev Gudkov, head of independent pollster the Levada Center, said nearly half of Muscovites oppose immigration.
Moscow mayor’s office approved the march despite an open letter on Friday by an advocacy group for migrants’ rights calling for the rally to be banned.
“We have more than once seen cases of mass beatings and even the murder of foreign citizens on this day,” the head of the Federation of Russian Migrants, Mohammad Amin Madzhumder, wrote.
“The March may deal a compromising blow to Moscow’s image as welcoming, multi-ethnic city.”
Outside the capital, police said they detained 90 people who attempted to hold an unsanctioned rally in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, 50 in the central Russian city of Kazan and 40 in Nizhny Novogorod.
Putin has promoted nationalism to help fill an ideological void left by the collapse of Communist rule in 1991 and feed his vision of a resurgent Russia, emboldened by booming oil revenues, during two terms as president from 2000 until 2008.
But Russia’s nationalists now feel he has betrayed them by welcoming migrant laborers and sending billions of dollars in subsidies to the majority Muslim regions of the North Caucasus.
Right-wing activists who once backed the Kremlin have joined liberals and leftists in a nascent, patchwork protest movement fed by popular anger over corruption, failing social services and allegations of vote fraud denied by the authorities.
Five nationalists won seats on an opposition council chosen in an online vote last month, and Putin’s most prominent foe, anti-graft blogger Alexei Navalny, regularly attends right-wing marches - though he had come down with the flu on Sunday.
“They hear us only when there are a lot of us, when we take to the streets,” said Vladimir Tor, one of the march organizers, a former leader of a banned right wing group, the Movement Against Illegal Immigrants (NAII).
“Our democratic system is ruined,” he said. “The Russian people need to unite and create their own civil society.”
Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff