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Russians form miles-long human chain for democracy

Some protesters in Moscow blamed President Vladimir Putin personally for Russia's lack of openness. But many said they were more focused on long-term democratic reforms.

By Correspondent / February 26, 2012

Russians upset with President Vladimir Putin form a human chain in October Square, near Moscow's police headquarters.

Fred Weir/Correspondent

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Moscow

Thousands of Russians, wearing white ribbons as a mark of pro-democracy protest, formed a human chain around Moscow's Garden Ring Sunday in a final warning against electoral fraud in presidential polls that will take place in a week.

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Protesters displayed their trademark white "Russian Winter" balloons, scarves and ribbons, and smiled and waved to passing drivers, many of whom honked in approval. But since authorities had granted no permit for the rally, people mostly remained silent and carried few of the sharply-worded political signs and banners that have been prominent in previous rallies.

The mood was upbeat, even though opinion polls appear to show that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks set to win a first-round victory in the March 4 voting. 

Some protesters said they blame Mr. Putin personally for Russia's endemic corruption, lack of media openness, and the system of "managed democracy" that critics describe as electoral flim-flam. But many said their purpose in expressing themselves publicly was to pressure for long-term change rather than merely to defeat Putin.

"We want changes, at last," said Natalya Syomina, a former tour guide. "If not for us, then at least for our children. If people hadn't begun protesting in recent months, the situation in the country would be different. We are sick and tired of this political stagnation, and when we come out into the street like this, the authorities cannot fail to notice that people are angry."

It was difficult to estimate the numbers of protesters who lined the entire length of the 10-mile long road amid gusting snow, in the latest of a series of demonstrations that began after widespread allegations of vote-rigging in December parliamentary elections.

Police, who have habitually underestimated the size of opposition crowds, put the number at 11,000. But opposition leaders pointed out that it would take at least 34,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder to line the road, which girdles downtown Moscow. Similar disputes over numbers have attended three previous mass protests, including one that filled Moscow's vast Sakharov Avenue two months ago.

Sunday's event was organized almost spontaneously, flash-mob style, with people reserving their place in the chain over recent days on a special Facebook page devoted to the rally.

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