Pro- and anti-government rallies are held in Moscow
Prime Minister Putin says parliamentary elections in December were fair
Opponents claim the results were rigged
Putin is running for president in March
Braving bitter cold, Muscovites in favor of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and those convinced parliamentary election results were rigged took to the streets Saturday.
The dueling rallies were held about six weeks after the last major anti-government demonstrations.
Putin is seeking the presidency in the March elections and will represent his United Russia party.
The move is the latest step toward Putin’s reclaiming the presidency after switching to the prime minister’s office because of a law barring him from serving more than two consecutive terms as president.
Russia’s third-richest man, billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, is running against him.
Joining tens of thousands of marchers, Prokhorov told CNN Saturday the protesters “are my potential voters. And I will do my best to help them to live in an open, competitive Russia.”
The state-run Ria Novosti news agency, quoting police figures, said the opposition rally in Moscow gathered 33,000 participants, while the pro-government event was attended by 150,000. But anti-Putin organizers said their numbers were close to 160,000.
The anti-Putin faction, calling for free and fair elections, carried banners, ribbons and signs. Among them was one depicting a rat with the message “Put in Trash.”
A pro-Putin rally in Ekaterinburg featured music and a wood-burning stove to help marchers deal with the subzero temperatures
Putin has brushed off widespread criticism that the December 4 parliamentary elections in Russia were falsified.
He said their results “reflect the actual lineup of forces in the country, as well as the fact that the ruling force – the United Russia party – has lost certain positions.”
The results caused mass protests in December.
At that time, President Dmitry Medvedev announced sweeping political reforms, an effort to address discontent.
Speaking before the newly elected parliament members in the Kremlin’s St. George Hall, Medvedev proposed that Russia return to direct elections of regional governors; simplify the registration of political parties and presidential candidates; and establish a new editorially independent national public TV channel.
Medvedev also called for lifting many of the political restrictions imposed in the past several years by Putin.
CNN’s Phil Black contributed to this report.