MOSCOW — Several thousand protesters took to the streets in Russia Saturday demanding free and fair elections, a month before presidential polls are due, while a counter rally expressed support for candidate Vladimir Putin.
About 200,000 supporters and opponents of Putin — who was president from 2000-08 and is now prime minister — took part in separate demonstrations.
Police said an estimated 36,000 anti-Putin protesters braved temperatures of almost -4 degrees Fahrenheitin Moscow — about 7,000 people more than at the largest turnout in recent demonstrations, on Dec. 24.
The opposition said, meanwhile, that 120,000 people came out to demand fair presidential elections on March 4, greater political freedom and democratic reform.
Among them were presidential candidate and multibillionaire Mikhail Prokhoro, who wants to force Putin into an election run-off, as well as Grigory Yavlinsky, of the Yabloko liberal party, who has not been authorized to contest the election.
The march against Putin drew people of all ages and political affiliations. Many demonstrators carried white balloons and ribbons as a symbol of peaceful political reform in Russia.
The pro-Putin camp mobilized 138,000 supporters, police told the Interfax news agency, while state media reported that in Moscow, many more demonstrated in favor of Putin than against.
The message was one of stability, at the first rally organized by government supporters to rival the street presence of opposition forces.
Placards bore messages such as, "Putin is great!" and "Chaos — no, Putin — yes!"
The opposition camp called for Putin to step down after 12 years in power. "Putin, clear off," their banners read.
No independent confirmation of the figures was available, while independent broadcaster Echo of Moscow spoke of a "war of numbers" at the pro-Putin rally.
Putin acknowledged media reports that employees of state-owned companies, and groups such as teachers, may have been told that they risked losing their jobs if they did not demonstrate in his favor.
"But with so many people, it is impossible that they were all forced," Putin said Saturday, according to Interfax news agency.
The premier was "very happy" that many more people had appeared to support him than the officially registered 15,000.
"If the organizers have to pay a fine because of the higher turnout, I am happy to provide money," Putin said in Chelyabinsk, about 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) east of Moscow.
Moscow was patrolled Saturday by 9,000 security personnel, for the first opposition demonstration to receive authorization for as many as 50,000 people.
Opposition rallies took place in several other cities, Interfax reported, including 30,000 people in St. Petersburg, according to organizers.
The pro-Putin camp announced another demonstration for Feb. 25 or 26.