Security guards detain activists of Ukrainian protest group Femen, outside the Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, Russia, yesterday. The post-election protests in Moscow drew thousands and have continued for several days in the biggest ever challenge to Putin.
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TENS of thousands of Muscovites thronged to a city square to protest against alleged electoral fraud and against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his party yesterday, and demonstrators gathered in other rallies across the vast country, the largest public show of discontent in post-Soviet Russia.
The protests come three months before Putin, who was president in 2000-08 and effectively remained the country's leader while prime minister, is to seek a third term in office. The public outpouring challenges his image, supported by state-controlled TV channels, as a man who won the affection of most Russians.
That image was undercut by last Sunday's parliamentary elections, during which his United Party narrowly retained a majority of seats, but lost the unassailable two-thirds majority it held in the previous parliament. Even that reduced performance was unearned, inflated by huge vote fraud, the opposition says, citing reports by local and international monitors of widespread violations. The reports of vote-rigging and the party's loss of seats acted as a catalyst for long-simmering discontent of many Russians.
"The falsifications that authorities are doing today have turned the country into a big theater, with clowns like in a circus," said Alexander Trofimov, one of the early arrivals for the protest at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River adjacent to the Kremlin.
By the time the rally started, the square and adjacent streets were packed with protesters braving intermittent wind-blown snow.
Police said there were at least 25,000, while protest organizers claimed 40,000.
City authorities have given permission for a rally of up to 30,000 people, unusual largesse for an opposition that generally is either denied permission to rally or limited to small numbers. It was not clear if police would choose to crack down if the crowd clearly exceeded 30,000. But they did try to move demonstrators off a footbridge leading to the island, claiming it was so packed with people that it could collapse.
Protests took place in at least 15 other cities from the Pacific Coast to the southwest. In the Pacific city of Vladivostok, several hundred protesters rallied along a waterside avenue where some of Russia's Pacific Fleet warships are docked.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been violated and Putin suggested "dialogue with the opposition-minded" - breaking from his usual authoritarian image.