- - Saturday, March 10, 2012

MOSCOW Tens of thousands of people gathered Saturday in downtown Moscow in the latest protest against the rule of President-elect Vladimir Putin, who secured a third term in Sunday’s election the opposition says was rigged.

“These authorities are illegitimate,” protest organizer Vladimir Ryzhkov told the crowd. “We will continue to demand meaningful political reforms and new elections.”

But the crowd of about 20,000 that filled parts of the vast Novy Arbat avenue was about a fifth of the size of rallies held before Mr. Putin’s landslide election victory.

“I’m not disappointed with the turnout,” opposition Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov told The Washington Times after addressing the crowd. “Even if one person had turned up today, I would have been satisfied.”

“The entire Kremlin propaganda machine has been working to convince people that what we saw were real elections,” he said, as he called for a million people to a protest march before Mr. Putin’s May 7 inauguration.

Police later detained Mr. Udaltsov and about a dozen other protesters as they tried to march on the Kremlin.

Mr. Udaltsov was also among several opposition leaders detained Monday at downtown Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where police moved in to disperse protesters who refused to leave at the end of an approved rally.

“The struggle will be long and hard, but Russia needs change,” Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party, told the crowd Saturday as two police helicopters circled above.

Protesters streamed along Novy Arbat, one of Moscow’s business and entertainment centers waving banners and white ribbons, the symbol of the four-month-old protest movement.

Speakers blared out a mixture of Russian and Western rock music, including Bob Dylan.

“I want to see a fair and free Russia,” said housewife Tatiana Plotkina, who had brought her baby to Saturday’s protest. “But Putin will just tighten the screws now.”

“I’m here because I was a monitor at the presidential elections and I saw what went on,” said Muscovite pensioner Galina Travkina. “We need a new president — someone young, intelligent and honest.”

Although Mr. Putin secured almost 64 percent of the vote nationwide, he received just under 50 percent in Moscow. Opposition leaders say his real showing in the Russian capital was much lower.

“Putin has lost Moscow, at the very least,” protest leader and environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova told The Washington Times by telephone. “But it’s time for us now to think about what we are for, rather than simply what we are against.”

The Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a report that Sunday’s election was “clearly skewed” in favor of Mr. Putin.

But Russia’s election chief, Vladimir Churov, said the polls were the “most honest, open and transparent” in the world.

Mr. Putin, the current prime minister, acknowledged election violations but said they were not significant enough to have altered the results.

Mr. Putin was Russia’s president from 2000-2008, when he was forced to step down by due to term limits. He handed over power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, but remained by far Russia’s most powerful politician.

Demonstrations against his rule were rare until December, when tens of thousands took to the streets to protest alleged vote fraud in favor of his United Russia party in parliamentary elections.

President Obama congratulated Mr. Putin on his victory on Friday.

“This proves Putin is an agent of the U.S. State Department,” joked opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, a reference to Mr. Putin’s claims that Washington has encouraged the ongoing protests.

“We don’t need Obama,” said protest organizer Mr. Ryzhkov. “We are the only people who can change the situation in Russia.”

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