MOSCOW – Tens of thousands of Vladimir Putin supporters were to mass in Moscow on Thursday, seeking to prove his bid for the Russian presidency enjoys popular support despite an outburst of opposition protests.
Under the slogan "Protect the Country," Putin's supporters are to march along the Moscow river embankment before gathering inside the Luzhniki sports stadium for a gigantic rally ahead of the March 4 presidential vote.
Putin's aides have said that the incumbent prime minister may take part in the rally, which is being held at a venue used for Moscow's biggest football matches and rock concerts by the likes of U2, but have not confirmed his plans.
"We must ensure our sovereignty. No one should be able to stick their noses into our affairs," Putin said in typically macho comments to military commanders on Wednesday.
The meeting is organised by Putin's All Russian Popular Front (ONF), a new umbrella grouping of individuals, unions and businesses that emerged for the first time last year to mobilise support for his Kremlin bid.
According to the ONF, 40,000 people will take part in the initial march from 0730 GMT with 100,000 then assembling in Luzhniki for the culminating one-and-a-half-hour rally.
The event clearly aims to be a riposte to the three mass rallies staged by the opposition since December 4 parliamentary elections which were tarnished by allegations of widespread vote-rigging.
"The aim of the action is to express approval for the current political course and give a rebuff to forces who want to break down the country," the ONF said in a statement.
The pattern of competing protests trying to outdo each other is set to be repeated in the aftermath of the election, with both the opposition and pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) vowing mass actions.
Despite the protests, Putin is still widely expected to easily win the election, with the main intrigue focused on whether he will be able to win over 50 per cent on March 4 and avoid a second round.
According to a projection by the state-run VTsIOM pollster based on its most recent poll, Putin should win 58.6 per cent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest challenger, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, and three other candidates. AFP