Anti-Putin protests spread across Russia, world

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Over 50,000 people rallied Saturday in Moscow while thousands more came out across Russia following disputed polls in the biggest ever national show of defiance against strongman Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.

A crowd chanting "Russia without Putin" marched past tight police cordons to a square on an island in the Moscow river amid anger at alleged vote-rigging in December 4 parliamentary elections won by Vladimir Putin's ruling party.

The polls were seen as a test of Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin for up to 12 more years via a job swap with Medvedev.

Similar scenes were replayed on a smaller scale in the Far East and across the industrial hubs of Siberia and the Urals -- a sign that Putin's path back to the Kremlin in March polls may be more fraught than it appeared just a week ago.

"Right now there is actually a chance for us to change something in this country," said 44-year-old Anna Bekhmentova as the demonstrators chanted "No to a police state!" and tied the protest movement's white ribbons to their winter jackets.

"No-one I know voted for United Russia," said Bekhmentova in reference to a party the opposition has branded a gang of "swindlers and thieves".

The biggest show of public anger in Moscow since the turbulent 1990s brought police helicopters out overhead and more than 50,000 officers onto the streets just six days after United Russia clung onto power with the alleged help of fraud.

But fury over the ballot and signs of sudden Kremlin weakness have stirred many to call not only for a new election but also an end to the stage-managed politics Putin, an ex-KGB agent, introduced on his sudden rise to power in 2000.

"People who have connections to the authorities feel like they can do anything," said 26-year-old lawyer Yelizaveta Derenkovskaya. "I came to support people who want to change this system."

Police put the turnout figure at 25,000 for Moscow and detained 30 people during a 10,000-strong rally in Saint Petersburg where both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev grew up.

But organisers and opposition lawmakers estimated the Moscow gathering at 50,000-80,000 -- with some saying more than 100,000 had come out in a display of people's power never before seen in the Putin era.

They also called for repeat demonstrations on December 24 should the poll results not be annulled.

"This is probably the last chance we get of changing anything," said 23-year-old Ilya Sarmabarov as he held up signs with others on Saint Petersburg's Pionerskaya Ploshad square.

The rolling rallies kicked off in Far Eastern hubs such as Khabarovsk where around 40 people were detained during an unsanctioned rally attended by some 400 people in minus 15 degree Celsius (five degrees Fahrenheit) chills.

Organisers also reported 5,000 showing up in the struggling industrial town of Chelyabinsk and up to 4,000 in the nearby Urals Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while similar rallies were also reported in Western Siberia and the south.

Even Russians living in New York demonstrated in support of those protesting in their homeland.

About 200 people gathered outside the Russian consulate in Manhattan to demand a re-run of the election and Putin's departure.

"Putin shame!" they chanted and "Russia without Putin!"

Considering that anti-Putin protests among New York's large Russian immigrant community rarely involve more than a dozen people, participants said the relatively large turnout was significant.

Organizers said expatriates also protested in European cities including London, as well as in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver and dozens of other cities.

"This marks a new stage because these people coming out on the streets in Russia and here in New York are typically apolitical," said Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned former businessman and famed Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"This idea is spreading. It's not the idea of trying to overturn the government. It's the idea of holding government accountable," Khodorkovsky told AFP outside the consulate.

Another protester, Ellen Fridliand, who works in public relations and is active with Russian opposition groups, said Russians were looking at the example of the Arab Spring, in which longtime authoritarian regimes were overturned this year.

"We think all the revolutions in Muslim countries and North Africa are very positive for Russia," she said.

Russian state television -- an object of scorn for much of the country's Internet community for its blanket ban on coverage of post-election unrest -- took the unusual step Saturday evening of leading its news programme with Moscow rally coverage.

Some in the Russian opposition interpreted this as an early sign of change while a Kremlin source told the popular news site that the decision to run the mostly-balanced reports was taken personally by Medvedev.

Analysts say rapid social change and the Internet's growing penetration in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard.

A running public opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre showed Putin's ratings taking a dive immediately after he announced his presidential ambitions on September 24.

© 2011 AFP

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