Protesters gather for another big rally in Moscow

December 24, 2011 - 5:26 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's opposition forces are set to challenge the government with a new wave of protests against election fraud.

Organizers of Saturday's demonstration in Moscow hope it will be as large as a protest two weeks ago that drew tens of thousands — the largest show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse — although rallies in other cities in Russia's far east and Siberia earlier today drew much smaller crowds.

Nearly 53,000 people have so far signed up on Facebook for the rally on a broad avenue about 2.5 kilometers (some 1.5 miles) from the Kremlin.

Recent protests in Moscow and other cities have dented Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's authority as he seeks to reclaim the presidency in next March's vote. The Kremlin has responded by promising a set of political reforms that would liberalize election rules.

But protest leaders say they will continue pushing for a rerun of the Dec. 4 parliamentary election and punishment for officials accused of fraud. They say maintaining momentum is key to forcing the government to accept their demands.

The protests have reflected a growing public frustration with Putin, who ruled Russia as president in 2000-2008, and has remained the nation's No. 1 leader after moving into the premier's seat due to a constitutional term limit.

Although Putin has accused the United States of fomenting the protests in order to weaken Russia and blasted protesters as Western stooges, he has also sought to soothe public anger by promising to relax his tight grip on the nation's political scene.

Putin has promised to liberalize registration rules for opposition parties and restore the direct election of governors he abolished in 2004. Putin's stand-in President Dmitry Medvedev spelled out those and other proposed changes in Thursday's state-of-the nation address, promising to restore single-ballot elections to fill half of the seats in parliament and ease rules for the presidential election.

Some opposition leaders welcomed the proposals, but stressed the need for the protests to continue to force the Kremlin to quickly turn promises into law.

The electoral changes, however, will only apply to a new election cycle years away, and the opposition has stressed the need to focus on preventing fraud in the presidential election and mounting a consolidated challenge to Putin in the March vote.