MOSCOW (AP) — Their frozen breath rising in the brutally frigid air, tens of thousands of protesters marched through downtown Moscow on Saturday to keep up the pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin one month before a presidential election that could extend his rule for six more years.
The protesters have few illusions that they can drive Putin from power now, but for the first time in years Russians are challenging his control and demanding that their voices be heard.
Wrapped in furs or dressed for the ski slope, as many as 120,000 people turned out for the third and perhaps largest mass demonstration since Putin's party won a parliamentary election Dec. 4 with the help of what appeared to be widespread fraud.
The election, following Putin's presumptuous decision in September to reclaim the presidency, was the last straw for Russians increasingly unhappy with the creeping authoritarianism during his 12-year rule. Two protest rallies in December, which also drew tens of thousands, were the biggest in Russia since the demonstrations 20 years ago that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The deep freeze that has settled over the Russian capital threatened to keep many away on Saturday, when temperatures dropping to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius).
Instead, they tied on the white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement and chanting "Russia Without Putin" marched about a mile (about 1 1/2 kilometers) to a square across the river from the Kremlin. Thousands of police monitored the two-hour peaceful protest without intervening.
"There are now so many of us that they cannot arrest us all," said 56-year-old protester Alexander Zelensky. In recent years, riot police have routinely broken up opposition protests and detained the participants.
He and his wife, Alyona Karimova, 50, said they had begun preparations last year to emigrate to Canada, 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. Many clearly had been drinking.
"I can see how Russia started to change when Putin became president," said Alexander Igolkin, a 51-year-old social worker. "I would already build a monument to him."
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, many of whom are connected through social networking sites.
Putin has ignored many of their demands, including for a repeat parliamentary 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.
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 demonstrators by casting their leaders as Western lackeys working to weaken Russia.
The opposition has drawn some criticism for including Communists and nationalists in its ranks. Separately from the main march, Saturday also saw a small Moscow rally by anti-Putin figures who want to keep their distance. They expected as many 30,000, but only about 250 came.
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 a 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."
During the demonstration, activists from several organizations were encouraging protesters to sign up as election observers to guard against vote rigging on March 4.
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. Some balloons had lettering saying "For Fair Elections" or "If You Inflate (the vote) Once Again, I'll Burst."
Nataliya Vasilyeva, Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Irina Titova in St. Petersburg, contributed to this report.