MOSCOW -- Thousands of Russian opposition activists and their supporters rallied in Moscow, in the wake of regional elections that saw the ruling party trouncing opposition candidates in voting criticized as rigged.
The protest, called A Meeting to Change Power, was the first in many months to publicly challenge President Vladimir Putin’s government, but it drew far fewer numbers than organizers had hoped for -- between 2000-4,000, by several unofficial estimates.
Held in a southern district of the Russian capital, well outside the center, it featured many from the country’s beleaguered and fractious opposition, with attendees waving Russian flags and the flags of the coalition group called Parnas.
Many held signs referring to the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin in February. Other signs read “Putin is a Tsar; He is a Bureaucrat” and “Enough of the Lies and Stealing.”
“We will continue to tell people about corruption and thievery because this is our country. This is our civic obligation,” Ilya Yashin, a longtime activist, told the crowd.
“This is a government of thieves,” he said.
Aleksei Navalny, a well-known anticorruption blogger and opposition figure, mocked the vote percentage the United Russia ruling party received in last week's elections in more than two dozen regions.
"When we read about that percentage in Turkmenistan or Zimbabwe, it falls within the categories of humor: We laugh at that. Equally, our children will be laughing at the high percentage [declared as the results in elections] in favor of today's government," he said.
WATCH: Opposition Supporters Rally In Moscow
The Kremlin-backed United Russia political party, which dominates the country’s political system, won convincingly in the September 13 voting to choose governors and regional and municipal parliaments in more than two dozen regions.
Opposition groups were kept off the ballots in all regions except for Kostroma, northeast of Moscow, and the groups had hope for a decent showing; Yashin, the activist, led the slate of candidates for RPR-Parnas there.
But United Russia won decisively in Kostroma, and the groups later complained that they were allowed to run in that region only so that United Russia could discredit them with a strong victory.
Golos, an independent election watchdog, said in a report after the vote that the overall election demonstrated the lack of political competition and showed the government's control over the results.
“The results of most campaigns were predetermined by the incumbents and electoral commissions at the stages of candidate registration and campaigning,” the group said.
Attendees at the Moscow rally were met with a sizable police presence, including helmeted riot officers, metal detectors, and a helicopter that hovered over the crowd.
At one point a multistory banner, which hung from one of the towering apartment blocks ringing the square, mocked the organizers and their slogan saying We Want to Change the Opposition.
Though the United Russia party has suffered in the past amid perceptions of corruption, Putin remains hugely popular with approval ratings well above 80 percent, according to some independent polls.
National parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year, while the next presidential vote will be held in 2018.
Putin, who is eligible to run for the six-year presidency again, has not yet said if he will be a candidate, though many experts predict he will.
With reporting from Reuters