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Russia protesters face post-poll test in new rally

Russia’s nascent protest movement prepared Friday for its first major rally since Vladimir Putin’s election victory in anxious hope of keeping its momentum going despite his crushing win.

City authorities have allowed up to 50,000 people to gather Saturday at 1:00 pm (0900 GMT) on Moscow’s central Novy Arbat Avenue for their fourth event since the wave of anti-Putin demonstrations began three months ago.

The earlier rallies were fed by public outrage over fraud-tainted December parliamentary elections and Putin’s private agreement with President Dmitry Medvedev that paved the way for the strongman leader’s return for a third term.

But his overwhelming 63.6 percent vote tally and a report from European monitors pointing to improvements in the way that Sunday’s ballot was conducted has taken some of the steam out of the mostly youth-driven opposition force.

Anxious organisers called on the masses on Friday not to give up hope simply because the movement had so far failed to unite behind a single leader who could reasonably challenge Putin at the polls.

“We have to come to save the ties we established during the elections and to show the authorities that we are still there,” one blogger wrote on a Facebook account used by Muscovites to organise rallies.

“It is a matter of our survival,” said the blogger.

The city authorities said they would be dispatching 2,500 police officers and riot troops from the interior ministry to the site of the protest to make sure it did not spread or get out of hand.

The president-elect himself spent the day Friday inspecting the Black Sea mountain resort that Russia will be using to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games — an event Putin secured at the end of his 2000-2008 Kremlin stint.

State television showed the former KGB spy inspecting a shooting range at a biathlon complex and firing a gun designed for Paralympians.

“Not bad for a first time,” an instructor told Putin after the Russian leader hit three of the five targets in a prone positions.

Putin has previosuly scoffed at the protests as too disorganised and politically unfocused to be taken seriously.

He has also refused to meet their leaders and has thus far given few signs he would bow to their demands of broader media freedoms and quick new elections in which previously unregistered candidates would be allowed to run.

But the fractured movement has also been hit by infighting between its more nationalist backers and those who support a liberal and less militant approach.

“For the first time in months, I am having doubts about whether to go to the next protest,” Memorial human rights group head Oleg Orlov wrote on a blog he maintains for the Moscow Echo radio station.

“Why is that at every meeting… I and my friends have to listen to radical nationalists? Those who did not send observers to the elections. Those who only recently publicly defended fascism,” Orlov asked.

His comments appeared to be at least partially aimed at Alexei Navalny — an anti-corruption blogger whose rousing rhetoric and support of nationalist causes has alienated some of the more traditional liberal bloc.

Navalny was expected to appear at the rally together with the radical leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov.

The event was officially being organised by a far more mainstream group of celebrities who have formed a League of Voters alliance in response to concerns over irregularities in December’s parliamentary polls.