Tens of thousands of Russians defied bitter cold in Moscow on Saturday to demand fair elections in a march against Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule, while supporters of the prime minister staged a rival rally drawing comparable numbers.
S maller protests were held in other cities across the vast country maintaining pressure on Putin one month before a March 4 presidential election he is expected to win. Putin's public image was shaken in December by allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections and protests unthinkable a year ago.
Their breath turning to white vapour clouds in the frigid Moscow air, tens of thousands of protesters marched within sight of the red-brick Kremlin walls and towers, chanting "Russia without Putin!" and "Give us back the elections!"
Putin was president from 2000 until 2008, when he ushered Dmitry Medevedev into the Kremlin because of a constitutional bar on three successive terms as head of state. Putin became prime minister but remained the dominant leader.
Putin presents himself as a man of action working for the good of the people and dismisses rivals as divided and lacking in any realistic policies to overcome the country's problems of industrial decay and poor transport and communications.
O n Saturday, he was 1,500 km (9 00 miles) from Moscow, promising angry residents of the Ural Mountains town of Roza the state w ould move 3,800 people from homes threatened by shifting ground on the edge of the biggest open-pit coal mine in Eurasia.
"You see what we are doing, we are dealing with concrete problems of the people who live here," Putin said when asked about the demonstrations.
Saturday's temperatures, far below freezing, tested the power and perseverance of a street protest movement fuelled by suspicions of fraud in a December parliamentary election and dismay among some Russians over Putin's plan to rule at least six more years.
In the capital, demonstrators bundled up against the cold marched down a broad central street, many wearing white ribbons symbols of protests whose main motto is "For Honest Elections". A digital clock flashed the temperature: minus 17 C (1 F).
"Not one vote for Putin!" Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal opposition leader, said to a roar of approval from the crowd at the rally that followed the march. Protesters packed a square across the river from the Kremlin, stamping and clapping to keep warm.
A patchwork alliance of disparate opposition leaders is trying to maintain momentum after tens of thousands turned out on Dec. 10 and Dec. 24 for the biggest opposition protests since Putin was first elected president in 2000.
Polls indicate Putin is all but certain to win the presidency despite a decline from previous popularity levels.
Opponents hope he will at least be forced into a runoff by falling short of a majority on March 4 and that persistent protests will undermine his authority, loosening his grip on power in a new six-year term and pushing him into concessions.
"We have already reached a point of no return. People have stopped being afraid and see how strong they are together," said Ivan Kositsky, 49. He said Putin "wants stability, but you can only find stability in the graveyard."
Kositsky wore an orange ribbon in a reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where peaceful protests following allegations of widespread election fraud helped usher an opposition candidate to the presidency.
Opposition leaders said up to 120,000 people joined their protest in Moscow, which appeared smaller than that but as large as the December rallies that drew tens of thousands - suggesting their fears a cold snap might keep people away were unfounded.
Many protesters had banners making light of the bone-chilling weather and calling for Putin to go. "Down with the cold, down with Putin," one banner said. Others declared: "They froze our democracy" and "We are frozen in solidarity."