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    28 February 2021 Sunday

    Rival rallies over Russian reform

    Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in rival demonstrations across Russia for and against controversial welfare reforms.

    Putin supporters rallied for the first time since the protests began
    Putin supporters rallied for the first time since the protests began

    Rallies against the reforms demanding the resignation of President Putin and his government were backed by the Communist Party and left-wing groups.

    But the main pro-government party organised alternative rallies in favour of Mr Putin's policies.

    The welfare reforms have scrapped Soviet-era benefits in favour of cash.

    But protesters, many of whom are pensioners or members of other disadvantaged groups, say too little is on offer.

    The BBC's Steve Rosenberg in Moscow says the reforms have generated a wave of protest unprecedented since Mr Putin became president in 2000.

    Resignation call

    It is not clear how many people were taking part in the pro-Putin and anti-reform demonstrations.

    Communist leaders are claiming the support of "millions"

    The largest protest rally was reported in Kirov region north-east of Moscow, where police said 16,200 took part.

    Another 70-odd cities attracted crowds, some in the thousands, including Moscow and St Petersburg.

    In Moscow, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told the rally that "millions" wanted the government and president to resign.

    "These reforms are either the work of a president who is an enemy, or a president who is stupid," read a banner at the demonstration.

    The main rallies in favour of Mr Putin were held in Moscow and four other cities - the first such demonstrations.

    According to police estimates, 30,000 took part in the Moscow rally, but some reports said people had been given incentives at work and college to turn up.

    "There's no reason to be dissatisfied with Putin," said Anatoly, a former naval officer in his 80s, quoted by Reuters news agency. "We're here to show our support and love for the president."

    No-confidence vote

    A nationwide campaign of civil disobedience against the reforms began a month ago, forcing the government to allocate extra money for those set to lose benefits such as free public transport and medicine.

    But the protests have continued, and correspondents say the issue has dented Mr Putin's popularity.

    The government survived a no-confidence vote organised by the opposition on Thursday.

    But most pro-Kremlin deputies abstained in the vote, apparently in an attempt to distance themselves from the government and the reforms.

    BBC news

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