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Russians rally for Vladimir Putin -- and 2 days off work

Updated at 10:13 a.m. ET: MOSCOW -- Thousands of people marched in Moscow under Russian flags, balloons and banners on Thursday to back Vladimir Putin's bid to return to the presidency and counter opposition protests that have challenged his authority.

Putin is running for a third term as president in an election on March 4. The 59-year-old is seen as certain to win, but is facing a strong challenge to his authority from a protest movement that has drawn large crowds to its rallies in Moscow.

The Associated Press reported that most of Thursday's participants appeared to be workers paid by or dependent on the state, including teachers, municipal workers and employees of state companies.

$67 payment offered
Some people at the rally told reporters they were promised two days off in return for attending. Many were reluctant to explain why they came, The AP reported.

"I came here with friends. They said they would pay each of us 2,000 roubles ($67)," said a 21-year-old man who gave his name only as Alexander. He and his friends were brought into Moscow by bus from just outside the city.

Putin's campaign team, which portrays him as a strong leader and guarantor of stability, has failed to quell reports that many of the people at pro-Putin rallies are paid or coerced into attending by employers and trade unions.

Motorists protest against Putin in Moscow's streets

Wearing warm hats, scarves and coats on a chilly national holiday, the participants started marching along the banks of the Moscow River behind a long blue banner declaring: "Our vote for Putin."

The atmosphere was festive on Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday which honors the armed forces.

Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters

Thousands of people attended a march backing Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday. Russians will go to the polls on March 4.

The AFP news service estimated that 30,000 people attended the rally. However, the BBC cited Moscow police as putting the total at 130,000.

Police were out in force because the opposition communists and nationalists planned rallies in other parts of the capital.

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The communists and nationalists also staged small rallies in several other cities across the vast country of more than 140 million people.

'Join us'
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 deceive 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."

If Putin, a former KGB officer, wins the election, he will extend his 12-year rule for another six years. Putin was president from 2000 until 2008, when he was barred by the constitution from running for a third successive term, but has remained dominant as prime minister.

The latest opinion poll this week showed he would win more than 50 percent of the votes on March 4, enough to avoid a second-round runoff. His rivals include nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, communist Gennady Zyuganov and businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets.

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Putin says many people want him to return to the presidency; when he last held the office, Russians enjoyed an economic boom on the back of a surge in the price of oil, Russia's main export commodity.

After initially insulting the protesters who have taken part in opposition rallies sparked by allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election won by his party on Dec. 4, Putin has allowed their main rallies to go ahead.

'Frozen fury': Thousands brave icy chill to protest in Moscow

But he has accused foreign governments of backing the opposition protesters and has met none of their main demands, including a rerun of December's election, the release of people the opposition call political prisoners and far-reaching political reforms.

The next opposition protest in Moscow is planned for Sunday.

If Putin wins two more terms, he could stay in power until 2024. The opposition protesters say a growing number of Russians feel they have no say in the way Russia is run and that it is bad for any country to be led by one person for so long.

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The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.