Russia: Rival pro-, anti-Putin rallies bring out thousands in Moscow

Thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow today at rival rallies organized by supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

At least four demonstration were organized in the capital, according to the Moscow Times: one pro-Putin rally and three opposition ones, the largest of which 27,000 people had signed up to attend on Facebook by Friday afternoon.

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The numbers of protesters reported Saturday varied widely. Moscow police said 33,000 people took part in the largest opposition demo, while the organizers claimed the number was more than 160,000, state news agency RIA Novosti reported, adding that video footage appeared to back up the higher estimate.

Some 150,000 people attended the pro-government rally, police said. According to the Moscow Times' reporter, some demonstrators were reluctant to discuss why they were there and others said they had been pressured to attend by their employers.

The opposition march united a number of different opposition groups, including liberals, nationalists and Communists. Slogans ranged from "Russia will be free" to "Russia without Putin," according to RIA Novosti.

The organizers want a re-run of Russia's parliamentary elections in December, which they allege were fraudulent, and for Russians to vote against Putin in March's presidential election. According to the BBC, the government's opponents do not expect to be able to to stop Putin winning, but hope they can pressure him sufficiently to force political reforms.

In that respect, today's rallies were a key test of whether the opposition could maintain the momentum of its anti-government protests last year; the large crowds reported suggest that it can.

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Meanwhile Putin's supporters chanted "There are more of us." Addressing the crowd, speakers slammed preceived attempts to start a so-called "Orange Revolution" in Russia, like those that took place in other former Soviet republics following disputed elections.

"We say no to the destruction of Russia. We say no to Orange arrogance. We say no to the American government… Let’s take out the Orange trash," said one of the co-organizers of the pro-Putin demonstration, political scientist Sergei Kurginyan.

Authorities had given their permission for the opposition marches, but organizers would face fines for exceeding the officially sanctioned attendance limit of 15,000, RIA Novosti said.

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