Putin under pressure after record protest

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Russia's Vladimir Putin faced the most intense political pressure of his dominant 12-year rule Sunday after tens of thousands rallied across the country and swarmed in Moscow in an angry protest.

Saturday's historic demonstrations near the Kremlin saw more than 50,000 chant "Russia without Putin" and deride his ruling party for its narrow victory in December 4 elections that were alleged to have been riddled with fraud.

The show of public frustration was unprecedented for a city that emerged from the tumultuous 1990s as the birthplace of the "managed democracy" system that Putin set up across Russia on his rise to the presidency in 2000.

Putin stayed out of the public limelight while his spokesman issued a carefully-worded statement referring to "a democratic protest by a section of the population" that did not represent the country as a whole.

"We respect the point of view of the protesters. We are hearing what is being said and we will continue to listen to them," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in the overnight statement.

The ex-KGB agent now serves as premier and this month's legislative poll was seen as a litmus test of his decision to return to the Kremlin for up to 12 more years in March elections that he seemed destined to win.

But scenes similar to those witnessed in Moscow were also replayed on a smaller scale across the industrial hubs of Siberia and the Urals -- a sign that Putin's path back may be more fraught than it appeared just a week ago.

"Right now there is actually a chance for us to change something," 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 coats.

"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."

Putin's announcement of his planned job swap with President Dmitry Medvedev saw his impressive popularity ratings take a surprise hit amid grumbling that the people were never consulted about who should lead their country next.

The opposition to Putin meanwhile is expanding beyond a narrow base of veteran liberals and far-right nationalists to attract popular cultural figures with broad appeal such as detective story writer Boris Akunin.

"I have not seen Moscow like this for 20 years," Akunin told the Moscow crowd.

Russia's central election commission has already rejected the protesters' two main demands of annulling the vote results and replacing its pro-Kremlin chairman.

The opposition responded by threatening to return to the same Moscow square en masse on December 24 and possibly holding smaller rallies at various locations before then.

One of Saturday's biggest surprises came in the evening when state TV -- scorned by the Internet community for its ban on coverage of post-election unrest -- took the unusual step of leading its news broadcasts with rallies.

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

The Kremlin source added that Medvedev had also instructed the Moscow police to handle the protesters "extremely gently" after seeing more than 1,000 activists bundled away by riot police the previous week.

But dozens of people were still arrested in the regions as officials scrambled to respond to the re-emergence of political activity in cities that had stayed quiet since the early post-Soviet times.

"This is an entirely new situation. This is a lot of people for the provinces," said Alexey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

The biggest regional rallies saw some 5,000 people come out in Novosibirsk -- Russia's third largest city and the heart of Siberia -- and the industrial hub of Chelyabinsk that Stalin developed in the Ural Mountains in the 1930s.

"This is the start of a new stage," said Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Institute of Contemporary Development centre set up by Medvedev in 2008.

"People have developed a taste for mass demonstrations and are now ready to rise up in response to anything," Gontmakher said.

Analysts said rapid social change and the Internet's growing penetration in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard after a decade in which they could mould public opinion through state-controlled media.

"The elections are approaching and people's trust is low," said Carnegie analyst Malashenko. "This means that the ruling class has to think about how it should behave next."

© 2011 AFP

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