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Hundreds of thousands mass on May Day in pre-election Russia

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in May Day demonstrations across Russia on Sunday, most showing support for the Kremlin while others held Arab-style opposition rallies.

Anti-Kremlin protesters were greatly outnumbered by pro-government demonstrators mobilised by the ruling United Russia party and Kremlin-friendly trade unions, which claimed a turnout of two million people.

Russia is gearing up to hold parliamentary elections in December followed by presidential polls next March in which both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are considering running.

While analysts say the victory of a Kremlin candidate is all but assured, there are signs of growing discontent with the authorities.

Analysts say it remains unclear whether Russians are prepared to take to the streets in huge numbers for protest rallies as most lost their taste for street politics during the turbulent post-Soviet years.

Crowds waving balloons, flowers and blue and red flags gathered in cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Moscow in carefully-choreographed rallies reminiscent of the Soviet era when May 1 was one of the most venerable holidays celebrating international socialism.

While calling for better social security, most expressed support for Kremlin policies. The ruling party said some 25,000 people turned up in Moscow alone to support it with slogans like “People! Medvedev! Putin! Together we are a force!”

Several thousand opposition supporters of all hues gathered separately to protest against Kremlin policies.

In central Moscow, the Left Front leftist activists urged Russians to follow the example of the Arab world and turn against their leaders.

The activists chanted: “Whether Cairo or Moscow, only through fighting will you obtain rights!” and “Tandem to the scrapyard of history” — referring to the duo of president and prime minister.

The protesters also sported a banner reading: “Throw down the tandem” and depicting Putin as the Madonna holding his “child” Medvedev.

On the same square in central Moscow around 30 Syrians gathered to express solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators back at home, holding banners in Russian and Arabic that read: “Freedom to Syria from despotism” and “Stop the siege of Syrian cities.”

Opposition supporter Ivan Petrenko said he was glad scores of people came to support the opposition in Saint Petersburg, the ruling duo’s hometown.

“It means we are waking up,” he told AFP. “It means Putin and Medvedev’s government is on its last legs.”

Analysts however say the Russian opposition is fragmented and unlikely to muster an uprising that could sweep the ruling duo from power.

The government, which is regularly criticised for violently dispersing opposition rallies, also appears keen to show the country enjoys freedom of assembly.

Sunday’s relaxed atmosphere at the pro-government rallies contrasted sharply with riot police’s violent dispersal of opposition demonstrations in recent months.

While the country’s older generation embraces May Day for sentimental reasons, many said they were under pressure to join the rallies.

In remote Vladivostok, where many residents entertain anti-government sentiments, more than 50,000 people participated in demonstrations organized by the regional government and led by United Russia.

School teacher Veronika Fyodorova told AFP she had been made to join the rally.

“If your bosses tell you “you have to,” then you’d better heed that wish,” Fyodorova told AFP in Vladivostok.