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Mass rallies demand Putin quits

Tens of thousands of people held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has ever seen to criticise electoral fraud and demand an end to Vladimir Putin's rule.

Police showed surprising restraint and state-controlled TV gave the nationwide demonstrations unexpected airtime, but there is no indication the opposition is strong enough to push for real change from the prime minister or his ruling party.

Nonetheless, the prime minister seems to be in a weaker position than he was a week ago, before Russians voted in parliamentary elections.

His United Party lost a substantial share of its seats, although it retains a majority. The independent Russian election-observer group Golos said that "it achieved the majority mandate by falsification".

International observers reported widespread irregularities, and the outpouring of Russians publicly denouncing him throughout the country undermines Putin's carefully nurtured image of a strong and beloved leader.

Putin "has stopped being the national leader - in the eyes of his team, the ruling political class and society", analyst Alexei Malachenko of the Moscow Carnegie Centre wrote on his blog.

Putin, who was the president of Russia in 2000-2008 before stepping aside because of term limits, will seek a new term in the Kremlin in the March presidential elections. The protests have tarnished his campaign, but there is not yet any obvious strong challenger.

The most dramatic of the protests saw a vast crowd jam an expansive Moscow square and adjacent streets, packed so tight that some demonstrators stood on others' toes. Although police estimated the crowd at 30,000, aerial photographs suggested far more, and protest organisers made claims ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 or more.

Elsewhere in Russia, some 7,000 protesters assembled in St Petersburg, and demonstrations ranging from a few hundred people to a thousand took place in more than 60 other cities

Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide, a notably low number for a force that is characteristically quick and harsh action against opposition gatherings. The police restraint was one of several signs that conditions may be easing for the beleaguered opposition, at least in the short term.

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