MOSCOW Thousands of Russians joined hands to form a human chain around Moscow city centre on Sunday in protest against Vladimir Putin's likely return as president in an election next week.
The protesters stood side by side around the wide 16-km (10-mile) Moscow Garden Ring Road in gently falling snow, many of them wearing the white ribbons that symbolize the biggest opposition protests since Putin rose to power 12 years ago.
The mood was festive as protesters, some chanting "Russia without Putin," waved at cars which hooted back in support. Some held blown-up condoms - mocking Putin for saying he mistook the white ribbons they pin to their coats for contraceptives.
"There is no way that Putin can win honestly," said Yevgeniya Chirikova, a leading opposition campaigner.
"You see how many people are out here now. If we can prove that there is falsification in the presidential election, then there will be a very strong reaction (from the people)," she said.
Putin is all but certain to win the presidential election on March 4, and return to the post he held from 2000 until 2008, after a campaign portraying him as a strong leader who oversaw an economic boom and rebuilt Russia as a powerful nation.
But the protests point to growing dissatisfaction among relatively well-off voters in big cities with a political system dominated by one man, widespread corruption and a lack of transparency.
Putin has remained Russia's dominant leader despite stepping aside to become prime minister in 2008 because of constitutional limits, and protesters are alarmed that could win two more terms and rule the world's biggest country until 2024.
"I don't know that there will be any result (from the protest) but I've come to show the government that there are many of us and that there are many people together," said Nikolai Chekalin, a 66-year-old scientist.
"I would like transparency, an honest court and conditions for business to develop. Putin has been lucky, the price of oil has helped him. Without that he's nothing," he said, referring to the surge in global oil prices that fuelled Russia's economic boom during Putin's previous presidency.
DEMANDS FOR CHANGE
The organizers said they needed 34,000 people to complete the circle around Moscow's historic centre, which includes the Kremlin, the main centre of power in Russia. They put the number of protesters at 40,000. Police said 11,0000 had taken part.
The opposition protests began after allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election won by Putin's party on December 4. The Kremlin has offered token electoral reforms but not met any of the protesters' main demands, including a rerun of the election.
The protesters acknowledge that Putin, who has a tight grip on the media, is sure to reclaim the presidency but they want to show their discontent in the hope that it might undermine him or
encourage him to make policy changes.
"I think it is time for Putin to go. Even if he did good for the country in his first term, he can't remain in power forever," said Andrei Shirokolov, 46 , a physics researcher.
Shamsi Asafov, an 18-year-old student, said: "Today's demonstration has an important psychological effect. It shows the authorities that we will not give up ... It's a signal that the protest flame has not died down."
About 3,500 also demonstrated in Putin's home town, St Petersburg, on Saturday to demand his resignation. Scattered protests have taken place in cities across the country and tens of thousands have attended each of three big Moscow rallies.
Putin's campaign team has organized rallies of its own to try to counter the opposition protests and portrays the opposition protest movement as a threat to stability.
Tens of thousands packed a sports stadium to hear an address by Putin last Thursday, but many were state employees and some said they had been paid to attend or coerced by their bosses.
An opinion poll last week indicated Putin, 59, would easily win the election in the first round, avoiding a runoff, but the pollsters said the ex-KGB spy would face a lot of resentment.
"If the foundation of a house is weak, the walls won't stand. The foundation of our country was the December 4 election. The presidency is nothing without a strong Duma (parliament)," said a 63-year-old pensioner who gave his name only as Yevgeny.
"These protests will continue even until revolution. The authorities aren't going to back down and we won't back down. So anything could happen."
(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Guy Faulconbridge)