MOSCOW (AP) — Tens of thousands of Russians flooded downtown Moscow on Saturday to demand an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule, braving sub-zero temperatures to keep the protest movement alive one month before a presidential election that Putin is still expected to win.
The protest — which drew 120,000 people, according to organizers — was the third mass demonstration since Putin's party won a parliamentary election Dec. 4 with the help of what appeared to be widespread fraud.
The election and Putin's presumptuous decision to reclaim the presidency proved the last straw for Russians increasingly unhappy with the creeping authoritarianism during his 12-year rule. The protest rallies — which have brought together liberals, leftists and nationalists — are the biggest in Russia since the the demonstrations 20 years ago that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Saturday, people wearing the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement and chanting "Russia Without Putin" braved temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius) as they marched about one kilometer (less than a mile) to a square across the river from the Kremlin where their rally was held. Thousands of police monitored the peaceful protest without intervening.
"There are now so many of us that they cannot arrest us all," said 56-year-old protester Alexander Zelensky.
He and his wife, Alyona Karimova, said they had begun preparations to emigrate to Canada in the fall, but then changed their minds and decided to stay in the hope that Russia will eventually move toward democracy.
"This is going to be a gradual process, but we believe it will eventually lead to democracy and free elections," said Karimova, who was wearing a long mink coat and a sign around her neck telling Putin to return to his native St. Petersburg.
An anti-Putin protest also took place in St. Petersburg on Saturday, drawing 5,000 people, and smaller rallies were held in several dozen other cities across Russia.
A separate rally in Moscow in support of Putin drew no more than 20,000 people. Most of them were teachers, municipal workers, employees of state-owned companies or trade union activists, who had come with co-workers on buses provided by their employers.
Most of the pro-Putin protesters were reluctant to speak to journalists. Yekaterina, a 25-year-old postal worker who gave only her first name out of fear she would be fired, said she had been ordered to attend the rally and was told she would be paid as if it were a work day.
The anti-Putin protests have been driven by members of the educated and urban middle class.
Putin has ignored many of their demands, including for a repeat election, but he has sought to assuage their anger by making vague promises to introduce liberal reforms and to guarantee a fair presidential vote on March 4.
The protest leaders hope to stage another rally a week before the election to keep up the pressure on Putin.
To counter the protests, Putin has focused on consolidating his core support group of blue-collar workers, farmers, public servants and the elderly. He also has tried to discredit the protesters by casting their leaders as Western lackeys working to weaken Russia.
The opposition has also drawn some criticism for including Communists and nationalists in its ranks. Separately from the massive march, Saturday also saw a small Moscow rally by anti-Putin figures who want to keep their distance. But the thrust of their demands was the same as at the larger gathering.
Putin talks about stability ... we don't need the stability of the cemetery," longtime dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya told the rally of about 250.
The presidential race pits Putin against three leaders of parliamentary parties, who have run against him in the past, and one fresh face: the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Mikhail Prokhorov. Prokhorov joined Saturday's protest, but did not speak from the stage.
None of the contenders is expected to pose any serious challenge to Putin, whose ratings are now hovering just below the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory. If Putin fails to win an outright victory, he would face a runoff three weeks later, most likely against Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, a rival he could easily defeat.
Protesters at Saturday's rally denounced the race as illegitimate, pointing to the tight controls Putin has imposed over the political scene that have destroyed all genuine political competition.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko party who was barred from the presidential race, said the fight will not end after the election. "We are defending the future of our country," he said from the stage. "Our foes will soon see that it's only the beginning."
As the afternoon sun started to fade, the rally ended with the call of "Not a Single Vote for Putin" and demands for legal reforms that would open the way for fair political competition and for new parliamentary and presidential elections. The protesters also demanded the release of political prisoners and punishment for those involved in the vote-rigging.
Before heading home, the protesters released white balloons — a symbol of peaceful protest.
Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz contributed to this report.