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Chanting 'Russia without Putin,' flash mobs roil Moscow

Protesters across Russia march against Vladimir Putin's ruling party following allegations of official vote-rigging in last weekend's Duma elections.

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Opposition leaders say there will be more protests, including daily flash mobs and a big rally planned for Saturday in Revolution Square, which is adjacent to the Kremlin. That rally, planned weeks ago, has been granted an official permit – but only for a maximum of 300 participants, though organizers had asked to be allowed permission for 10,000 people – which the huge space could easily accommodate.

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Most state media have not reported the anti-government protests, but have instead lavished coverage on the "Clean Victory" demonstrations that have been held each evening in downtown Moscow by members of the pro-Kremlin "Molodaya Gvardia" and "Nashi" youth groups. These organizations were created in the wake of Ukraine's Orange Revolution several years ago to play precisely such a counterbalancing role if similar disturbances were to occur in Russia.

"There is no revolution going on, just a few provocations," says Anton Smirnov, federal commissar of the Nashi movement. "We have had ten times more people at our meetings than the numbers of marginal people and paid fanatics," who come out to protest alleged election violations, he adds.

Not surprisingly, Russian social media such as Facebook, LiveJournal, and the Russian-language VKontakte have lit up with commentary, including first-hand witness accounts of official pressure and vote-rigging during the election, information about protest venues, and harrowing tales by arrested protesters of brutality at the hands of police.

One entry on the relatively new Openspace.ru, offers a wealth of helpful advice for first-time protesters, from what to bring with you, to how to behave at the rally, and how to get legal help when you need it: "If you are detained, do not resist, relax and press your chin to breast, cover your head with hands," it advises. "If you are beaten, don’t hesitate to shout, the louder the better.... Having found yourself inside the paddy wagon, immediately send a phone message. If you call, do it in secret, because they can seize your phone...."

Analysts say that the immediate response of the authorities, which has been to crack down hard, may be a symptom of weakness that is only likely to inflame the public mood.

"They say these protests are only happening in a few big cities, but that's where trends usually start," says Mikhail Vinogradov, chairman of Peterburskaya Politika, an independent St. Petersburg think-tank. "The reaction from authorities has been incoherent, and Plan A appears to be to nip these rallies in the bud through overwhelming police force. After that, they may try to make a few concessions. We'll see."

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, co-leader of the liberal PARNAS, which was banned from taking part in elections, says that Putin has virtually disappeared from public view as the protests have spread.

"Putin is not taking this as a lesson. He needs to move to engage with the opposition, seek dialogue and compromise, but he is not doing it," says Mr. Kasyanov, who was Putin's prime minister during his first term as president.

"What has happened this week is the beginning of the end for the Putin regime. Yes, he will probably be elected (in polls slated for March) but there will be more fraud, more protests, and public cynicism will grow. We can confidently predict that the lifespan of this regime will be no more than one to five years," he says.

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