Pro-democracy critics of the current Russian government have drawn thousands of protesters for a "For Fair Elections" march in St. Petersburg despite a late-hour diversion of the rally route by local authorities, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.
Thousands of opposition demonstrators turned up in the center of the Russian second city to protest the policies of the era of Vladimir Putin, the former two-term president who is the favorite to win a new six-year term in the Kremlin in an election next week.
The demonstrators marched through the streets of Putin's hometown chanting anti-Putin slogans before gathering in a main square.
Although there was a heavy police presence, there were no arrests or clashes at the afternoon rally, according to RFE/RL's Russian Service.
The event was given official clearance, but organizers were denied permission to use Nevsky Prospekt, the city's historical main avenue.
Former international chess champion and longtime opposition leader Garry Kasparov said the event highlighted a sea change in Russian political life since Putin's carefully orchestrated handover of the Kremlin to current President Dmitry Medvedev four years ago.
He told RFE/RL that "everything had changed" since speculation began five years ago about how Putin might try to retain his preeminent political role despite a constitutional ban on a third consecutive term.
"We have realized that we are free citizens and have shown it," Kasparov said, in a reference to recent protests that had been unprecedented since the early 1990s in Russia. "Now they know that we are many but they are few -- they are fenced off from us by iron bars, body armor, helmets, because they know that without them they cannot win the election."
Putin, who was Russia's president from 2000-08 after himself being named head of state by the outgoing Boris Yeltsin, is widely expected to defeat his four registered challengers in the March 4 vote.
AP quoted a leader of the opposition Left Front movement, Sergei Udaltsov, as telling the crowd in St. Petersburg that new protests should erupt if the election does not go into a runoff.
"If we are deceived again on March 4, then on March 5 we should begin to strike," Udaltsov reportedly said.
Most polls show Putin
with sufficient support to win outright on March 4, with majority support despite the conspicuous opposition fueled in part by accusations of massive fraud in the December national parliamentary elections.
Putin won both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in the first round.
Medvedev announced in September that he wouldn't challenge Putin but would seek another swap with his mentor, giving Medvedev the prime minister's seat.
The other presidential candidates are former Federation Council speaker and A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.
Another major "For Fair Elections" rally is scheduled for the capital on February 26, with organizers vowing to draw tens of thousands of people to the so-called Garden Ring road that surrounds the heart of Moscow.
With AP and AFP reporting