Day of massive protests in Russia
Updated 1:55 p.m. ET
MOSCOW - Tens of thousands of Muscovites thronged to a square across the river from the Kremlin on Saturday to protest alleged electoral fraud and urge an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule, demands repeated at other rallies across this vast country in the largest public show of discontent in post-Soviet Russia.
Protests took place in more than 50 other cities from the Pacific Coast to the southwest, including a large demonstration estimated by police at 7,000 people in St. Petersburg.
CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports reports there have been clashes in St. Petersburg, with riot police dragging away protesters. Demonstrations in Moscow have so far been peaceful but they are growing in number and anger.
Fewer than 100 demonstrators were reported arrested nationwide - far fewer than the hundreds taken into custody at smaller protests in the first days after the Dec. 4 national election. Police, who normally crack down fast and hard on any unauthorized gathering, even allowed a few hundred leftist radicals to conduct an unsanctioned protest on Moscow's Revolution Square just outside the Red Square.
In the Pacific city of Vladivostok, several hundred protesters rallied along a waterside avenue where some of Russia's Pacific Fleet warships are docked. They shouted "Putin's a louse" and some held a banner caricaturing United Russia's emblem, reading "The rats must go."
The demonstrations come three months before Putin, who was president in 2000-2008 and effectively remained the country's leader while prime minister, is to seek a third presidential term. The massive outpouring of public anger challenges his image, supported by state-controlled TV channels, as a man backed by the majority of Russians.
That image was undercut by last Sunday's parliamentary elections, during which his United Party narrowly retained a majority of seats, but lost the unassailable two-thirds majority it had held in the previous parliament. Even that reduced performance was unearned, inflated by massive vote fraud, the opposition says, citing reports by local and international monitors of widespread violations. The reports of vote-rigging and the party's loss of seats acted as a catalyst for long-simmering discontent of many Russians.
"The falsifications that authorities are doing today have turned the country into a big theater, with clowns like in a circus," said Alexander Trofimov, one of the demonstrators at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River adjacent to the Kremlin.
"Everyone is sick of living under this regime which forbids freedom of expression," one demonstrator told CBS News. "We are against the lies and the bankrupt politicians."
The Moscow rally, which lasted about three hours, was so sprawling that unbiased crowd estimates were difficult to make. Police put the attendance at 25,000; organizers claimed up to 150,000.
Whatever the precise number, it was a show of dismay that gave pause to the ruling elite. State-controlled TV channels that usually ignore or deride the opposition gave notable airtime to the protests. A top United Russia official, Andrei Isayev, acknowledged late Saturday that "expression of this point of view is extremely important and will be heard in the mass media, society and the state."
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