Moscow: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against the dangers of foreign influence on Thursday at a campaign rally attended by tens of thousands of people, many of them state workers who were pressured to take part as a show of support for a leader facing his first outburst of public discontent.
Putin is running for a third term as president in a March 04 election and is almost certain to win. During 12 years in power, he has sidelined his political opponents and built up his image as the defender of a strong and prosperous Russia. His approval ratings are still running at well above 50 percent despite the largest opposition protests the country has seen since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Putin has tried to discredit the protesters by accusing their leaders of being paid agents of the United States working to weaken Russia. His references on Thursday were more subtle as he called on all Russians who "cherish, care about and believe in" their motherland to unite.
"We ask everyone not to look abroad, not to run to the other side and not to betray your motherland, but to join us," he said from a makeshift stage in a soccer stadium as a light snow fell on his bare head.
But he also warned the West: "We won`t allow anyone to meddle in our affairs or impose their will upon us, because we have a will of our own."
The pro-Putin rally was held on Defenders of the Fatherland, a national holiday that replaced the Soviet-era Red Army Day. As participants marched in columns toward the stadium along the Moscow River, they carried Russian flags and wore armbands in the national colours. Patriotic songs from decades past blared from vans parked along the route.
They carried signs saying "As long as we have Putin we have a strong country," ``Vote for Putin, vote for a stable country," and "There is no alternative”.
Putin won his two previous presidential terms in 2000 and 2004. After moving into the Prime Minister`s job, he remained Russia`s No 1 leader but has seen his support slip amid growing public frustration with his rigid controls over the political scene and rampant corruption.
The campaign rally came in response to the opposition protests, which began in December after a Parliamentary Election that Putin`s party won through what appeared to be widespread fraud. The Kremlin has entered into what has become a competition over crowd size, eager to show that it, too, can bring tens of thousands of people out onto the street.
But while the protests have been embraced by Russia`s middle class and young urban professionals, many of those who attended Thursday`s rally showed little enthusiasm. They included workers paid by or dependent on the state, including teachers, municipal workers and employees of state companies. Some said they had been promised two days off in return for attending.
Many people at the rally were reluctant to explain why they had come or offered only perfunctory statements in support of Putin. Some were brought by bus or train from other cities around Russia. Thousands bolted for a nearby subway station at the end of the march rather than enter the Luzhniki stadium to hear Putin.
An estimated 75,000 people filled the stadium, which had room for about 100,000 in the stands and on the pitch.
Some march participants offered genuine praise.
"I love Putin and Putin loves me," said Vladimir Gryzlov, a 68-year-old musician who brought his accordion.
With him was 70-year-old Tatyana Goytseva, who like many older Russians said she feared a return to the political turmoil of the 1990s and felt secure under Putin`s leadership.
"We are happy with it, but of course the young people don`t think the same," said Goytseva, a social worker who helps the elderly. She said her three grandchildren were not voting for Putin.
Putin has four challengers, including three veteran party leaders who long ago reached an accommodation with the Kremlin and pose little challenge to Putin. The only newcomer is Mikhail Prokhorov, a 46-year-old billionaire businessman who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team.
Prokhorov`s candidacy has been viewed as a Kremlin-approved effort to add legitimacy to the election and channel the discontent of the protesters. Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, was denied the right to run.
The Communist and nationalist candidates held separate rallies in Moscow on Thursday, each drawing 2,500 to 3,500 supporters.
Putin and his supporters have tried to add an element of fear to the political situation by depicting the protesters as revolutionaries, intent on overthrowing the government, even though the opposition leaders have consistently called for peaceful, democratic change.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin picked up the theme on Thursday.
"Ambitious politicians are calling for a revolution," he told the crowd ahead of Putin`s arrival. "We won`t allow any upheaval in the country."
A blue-collar worker who travelled nearly 1,400 kilometres (900 miles) to speak at the rally also disparaged the protesters.
"This is our country. It does not belong to those loafers who are always grumbling," said Igor Kholmanskikh, who works at a plant producing tanks and train cars in Nizhny Tagil.
Perhaps in honour of the patriotic holiday, Putin framed the campaign as a battle for the future of Russia.
"The battle for Russia goes on! Victory will be ours!" he said in wrapping up his six-minute speech.