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Thousands of democracy campaigners protest in Russia

Thousands of anti-voting fraud demonstrators turn out in the streets of Moscow, Russia, to voice their displeasure over recent elections. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Updated at 10:33 a.m. ET: Demonstrations have ended peacefully at 6:11 p.m. local time, with a few people and police left behind, according to the Moscow Times. “Thus ends a truly remarkable day of action,” the Times wrote on its blog.

Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET: Moscow Times says the anti-voter fraud demonstration in Moscow has thinned but several thousand people seem "determined to stay to the very end." The protest is officially allowed until 9 a.m. ET.

Updated at 8:20 a.m. ET: Moscow police say "about 10" people have bee arrested at the anti-vote fraud demonstration in a central square and will be charged with administrative violations, The Moscow Times reports. A reporter for the paper says there is a sizable contingent of security personnel in riot gear -- estimated at about 1,000 officers and 30 trucks -- just south of the square.

Updated at 7:45 a.m. ET: Organizers of the anti-vote fraud protest in Moscow claim 85,000 people are in the crowd; Russian civic organization estimates there are 50,000 people, Tony Halpin, Moscow correspondent for U.K. newspaper The Times, says in a message on Twitter. "It's definitely more than 35k who said they'd come on Facebook," he writes. 

 


Updated at 6:15 am ET: Police say at least 15,000 people have gathered in Moscow's central Bolotnaya Square to protest about alleged electoral fraud and against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, The Associated Press reports.

Elsewhere in Russia, crowds of several hundred people to about 1,000 gathered in some 15 cities, according to the AP.

Updated at 5:40 a.m. ET: NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk reports that there are already so many protesters in the Moscow square where the officially sanctioned demonstration is taking place that "police are no longer letting them in the square," in a message on her Twitter account.

Published at 4:30 a.m. ET: Russians angered by allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections protested Saturday in rallies across the country, a widespread wave of anger that tests Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hold on power.

The centerpiece is to be a massive rally in Moscow, where more than 30,000 people are expected. But demonstrations attracting anywhere from several hundred to 1,000 people took place earlier in cities in Siberia and the Far East.

Demonstrations have been called for more than 70 cities, in what is likely to prove the largest public show of discontent in post-Soviet Russia.

The Russia Today news service sent out a message on Twitterusing the hashtag, Russianwinter, echoing the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

The protesters are both angered by reports of flagrant vote fraud in the Dec. 4 election and energized by the sense that the elections showed Putin and his United Russia party to be newly vulnerable. The party held an overwhelming two-thirds of the seats in the previous parliament, but its share plunged by about 20 percent in the recent vote.

That result was a significant loss of face for the party that has dominated Russian politics, and protesters say that even its reduced performance was inflated by ballot-box stuffing. 

Unscheduled high school test
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reportedthat Moscow’s deputy mayor, Alexander Gorbenko, said that "the organizers have agreed to hold the rally in Bolotnaya square, which was offered to them by the authorities for safety reasons."

After protests erupted earlier this week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin turned his anger on the United States, blaming Hillary Clinton in a war of words.

He added that the rally has permission to run from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Moscow time (5 a.m. to 9 a.m. ET). "According to his estimates, 5,000-7,000 demonstrators may take part," Itar-Tass said.

Itar-Tass reported that Moscow city’s education department had ordered an unscheduled Russian language test for high school students at 3 p.m. Moscow time (6 a.m. ET).

"It is impossible to believe that there may be grown-up people in their right mind who would feel upset school students are busy at school during some street demonstrations," the chief of Moscow’s education department, Isaak Kalina, told the news agency.

"Any normal adult will not only refrain from urging them to go there, but will do everything in his powers to keep children in safety," he added.

Meanwhile, in Vladivostok, several hundred protesters rallied along a waterside avenue where some of Russia's Pacific Fleet warships are docked. They shouted "Putin's a louse" and some held a banner caricaturing United Russia's emblem, reading "The rats must go."

Police stayed on the fringes of the demonstration and made no arrests. But the Interfax news agency reported that an unsanctioned flash-mob protest in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk was broken up by police, who arrested about half the 60 participants.

Putin wants to talk
President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been violated and Putin suggested "dialogue with the opposition-minded" — breaking from his usual authoritarian image.

The Kremlin has come under strong international pressure, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the vote unfair and urging an investigation into fraud.

The opposition predicts at least 30,000 demonstrators will assemble for the Moscow protest.

If Saturday's protests are a success, the activists then face the challenge of long-term strategy.

Even though U.S. Sen. John McCain recently tweeted to Putin that "the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you," things in Russia are not that simple.

The popular uprisings that brought down governments in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine the next year and in Egypt last spring all were significantly boosted by demonstrators being able to establish round-the-clock presences, notably in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the massive tent camp on Kiev's main avenue.

Russian police would hardly tolerate anything similar.

Pressure on social media
In Ukraine and Georgia, police were low-profile, staying on the edges of the protests and keeping their numbers small. That's far different from Russian police's usual crowd-controlling method of flooding any protest zone with hundreds of helmeted police who seem to relish violence.

Opposition figures indicated Friday that the next step would be to call another protest in Moscow for next weekend, with the aim of making it even bigger. But staged events at regular intervals may be less effective than daily spontaneous protests.

The opposition is also vulnerable to attacks on the websites and social media that have nourished the protests. This week, an official of Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, reported pressure from the FSB, the KGB's main successor, to block access to opposition groups, but said his company refused.

On election day, the websites of a main independent radio station and the country's only independent election-monitoring group fell victim to denial-of-service hacker attacks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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