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Moscow Protesters Demand A 'Russia Without Putin'

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Vladimir Putin's win in Russia's presidential election has earned him six more years in the Kremlin, but it hasn't silenced the vocal protest movement against him.

An estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered Monday night in Moscow's Pushkin Square, standing in the snow and the cold and calling for a "Russia Without Putin."

The rally was peaceful, but after the speeches, riot police moved in with force and arrested some 250 people who refused to leave.

"Put Putin in a jail cell!" they cried. Yet it was some of the demonstrators and protest organizers who ended up in custody.

Among those rounded up was Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who has become the opposition movement's most prominent and charismatic leader. He and the others were later released.

After Putin's victory at the polls Sunday, he suggested the recent street protests were intended to usurp power and destroy the Russian state. Speakers at Monday's rally branded Putin the usurper and repeatedly sounded the theme of Putin as a thief.

Navalny, a lawyer, became a celebrity by pointing to official corruption on a mass scale and blogging about it. On Monday night, he asked the crowd: "What did you expect of this band of crooks and thieves?"

"For twelve years these people have looked at us every day and said, 'We're going to plunder you, steal from you and swindle you.' Yesterday, they robbed us," Navalny added.

The demonstrators say Putin prevented parties from registering and that he dominated television coverage. And they're convinced there was widespread abuse of absentee voting Sunday.

More Protests Coming?

But Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, doesn't think the vote violations Sunday were as egregious as in the December parliamentary election. Evidence of vote fraud then sent much bigger crowds into the streets.

"At least in Moscow, the actual tricks played are more clever, not as heavy-handed, and very hard to crack," she said.

As for the mass rallies, Lipman thinks they may be fizzling out. Fewer people turned up for yesterday's protest than for earlier demonstrations. And, there's a change in tone.

"The more radical leaders have switched back to their tactics that existed before the mass rallies in direct confrontation with police, and the police have pretty much acted in same fashion as they did before the rallies became massive," she said.

But she said the mass rallies have already achieved a lot by increasing the level of civic activism.

In the short term, she expects a combination of crackdowns and small concessions from Putin. The protests, she says, have put a crack in his legitimacy, despite his big win at the polls.

She also said the anti-Putin rhetoric was sharper. The barbs Monday evening came from politicians of all stripes, from liberals to nationalists. A philosophy student at a Moscow University, who asked to be identified only as Dmitri, said he doesn't like any of the political parties on the scene.

He said he came to the rally to demand "reformation of the political system, the whole system, so that there will be a choice, for example, in elections, because in this election there was no choice."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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