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Thousands in Moscow demand free elections

Tens of thousands of Russians jammed a Moscow avenue Saturday to demand free elections and an end to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin's 12-year rule, in the largest show of public outrage since the protests 20 years ago that brought down the Soviet Union. Gone was the political apathy of recent years as many shouted, "We are the power!"

The demonstration, bigger and better-organized than a similar one two weeks ago, and smaller rallies across the country encouraged opposition leaders hoping to sustain a protest movement ignited by a fraud-tainted parliamentary election Dec. 4.

The enthusiasm also cheered Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader who closed down the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991.

"I'm happy that I have lived to see the people waking up. This raises big hopes," Gorbachev, 80, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

He urged Putin to follow his example and give up power peacefully, saying Putin would be remembered for the positive things he did if he stepped down now. The former Soviet leader, who has grown increasingly critical of Putin, has little influence in Russia today.

But the protesters have no central leader and no candidate capable of posing a serious challenge to Putin, who intends to return to the presidency in a March vote.

Even at Saturday's rally, some of the speakers were jeered by the crowd. The various liberal, nationalist and leftist groups that took part appear united only by their desire to see "Russia without Putin," a popular chant.

Putin, who gave no public response to the protest Saturday, initially derided the demonstrators as paid agents of the West. He also said sarcastically that he thought the white ribbons they wore as an emblem were condoms. Putin has since come to take their protests more seriously, and in an effort to stem the anger he has offered a set of reforms to allow more political competition in future elections. Kremlin-controlled television covered Saturday's rally but gave no air time to Putin's harshest critics.

Alexei Navalny, a corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, electrified the crowd when he took the stage. He soon had the protesters chanting, "We are the power!"

Navalny spent 15 days in jail for leading a protest on Dec. 5 that unexpectedly drew more than 5,000 people and set off the chain of demonstrations.

Putin's United Russia party lost 25 percent of its seats in the election, but hung onto a majority in parliament through what independent observers said was widespread fraud.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was among those who sought to give the protesters a sense of empowerment.

"There are so many of us here, and they [the government] are few," Kasparov said from the stage. "They are huddled up in fear behind police cordons."

Two rallies in St. Petersburg on Saturday drew a total of 4,000 people.

"I'm here because I'm tired of the government's lies," said Dmitry Dervenev, 47, a designer. "The prime minister insulted me personally when he said that people came to the rallies because they were paid by the U.S. State Department. I'm here because I'm a citizen of my country."