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Russians brave cold to turn out in droves for peaceful anti-Putin rally

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Up to 100,000 protestors braved the extreme cold in Moscow to march peacefully against the rigged parliamentary elections in December and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's grip on power and pending return to the post of President.

The organisers of the protest were demanding a re-run of December's election, dodgily won by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and calling on people to vote against Putin in March's presidential election. The crowd was estimated at some 120,000 by organizers, but given as a little over 35,000 by police. bne witnessed the protest held on Bolotnaya Square, the same venue as the first protest in December, was extremely well organised and attended, and will surely bring an end to the Kremlin's hope the demonstrations are a flash in the pan that can be easily dismissed.

The crowd chanted Russia without Putin! chanted Not one vote for Putin! and one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon came when Left Front movement leader Sergei Udaltsov symbolically tore up a portrait of Putin on stage.

If, as expected, Putin does regain the presidency, the scale and durability of the protests could point to a more reformist agenda for his new term in office than his coterie had probably expected to pursue when the PM announced his intention to stand in September.

But it is still unclear whether -beyond wanting fair elections and more media freedom - the protests point to society calling for a liberal or leftist agenda. Left Front's Sergai Udaltsov, for instance, is a pro-Soviet radical leftist with an authoritarian streak, along the lines of Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevist party. One of the movements most charismatic figures, anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalyni - who did not speak at the demo - has a liberal profile, but is on the record with racist statements and was previously excluded from liberal party Yabloko for strong nationalism. And the demonstration was equally supported by the parliamentary nationalist and communist opposition, as well as liberals such as Yavlinsky's Yabloko.

The protests also seem to be a mainly Moscow phenomenon, although a demo in Russia's second-largest city St Petersburg which has a strong liberal tradition attracted a decent number, with organisers claiming 25, 000 and police saying 5,000.

"Protests are likely to continue after the election," believe Citi bank analyst Kingsmill Bond. "Although many investors would like the March elections to draw a line under the political uncertainty, we believe that the protests will continue after the elections; now that the middle class has been politicized, there are many issues which could spark further protest," writes Bond in a research note.

"We believe that political change is coming, and that the rentier system that characterizes Russia will have to change with it," Bond continues. "In the short term, the elite will likely seek to change the system from within, but if they are unsuccessful, then we believe change will come from without.

"While Putins huge electoral rating advantage (37% vs. 8% for second-place Communist Gennady Zyuganov) leaves little doubt of Putins victory in the election, the recent events do keep a possible second round of the election on the agenda," write Alfa Bank's Natalia Orlova. "Furthermore, the recent developments suggest a risk that protest activity may persist even after the elections, providing a threat to Russias capital account."

In a new development, in contrast to two previous mass demonstration in December 2011 following the disputed results of election December 4, this time the Kremlin organized its own pro-Putin demonstration in a different location in Moscow, which Moscow police claimed attracted a crowd of 135,000. However independent observers said the crowd was far smaller and many seemed to have been bussed in from state companies.

"The unstoppable force of the middle class is in conflict with the immovable object of an entrenched elite, which on Saturday also brought its own supporters out onto the streets in an important new development, which points to escalation rather than compromise. Investors should not expect the process of change to run smoothly," warns Citi's Bond.

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