Tens of thousands of protesters, outraged over alleged election fraud, took to the streets Saturday across dozens of Russian cities in the largest anti-government demonstration since the demise of the Soviet Union, and since president-turned-prime minister Vladimir Putin came to power more than a decade ago.
Authorities put the number of protesters in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square at between 20,000 and 25,000, according to local and international news reporters on the scene. But organizers of the rally said the turnout was much greater, citing figures as high as 100,000, according to a BBC report.
Smaller demonstrations took place in other cities, including St. Petersburg, Siberia’s Novosibirsk and Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast.
The protesters allege there was widespread fraud in Sunday's general election and are demanding a new poll, despite the fact that Putin’s ruling United Russia party saw a sharp drop in support.
Saturday’s demonstrations brought together Communists, nationalists and pro-Western liberals, despite their differences, the BBC reported. The protesters waved banners with slogans urging Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev "to go," according to media reports and images broadcast on Russian and international television. Other slogans were more harsh, calling the leaders "cheats" and "petty thieves."
Some analysts view the rallies as a test of the Kremlin's willingness to allow freedom of speech and true democracy to thrive. Others have likened the protests to the initial uprisings that took place across the Arab world last spring and eventually toppled several longtime leaders.
U.S. Sen. and onetime Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently tweeted to Putin, "Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you." And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also expressed concern over the fairness of Russia’s recent elections.
It was unclear what effect the rallies might have on Putin’s plans to run for a third presidential term next year.
Police arrested more than 1,000 people immediately after the election, including several prominent civil and human rights activists. The demonstration in Moscow, monitored by tens of thousands of police and riot troops, dispersed late Saturday without major incident, according to international reporters on the scene.
-- Ann M. Simmons in Los Angeles
Photo: Protesters in Moscow shout slogans against Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin during a mass rally Saturday to protest alleged voter fraud in Russia's recent parliamentary elections. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr. / Associated Press