Foes and fans rally ahead of Putin inauguration

MOSCOW - Moscow prepared for rival rallies on Sunday between tens of thousands of Vladimir Putin supporters and members of Russia's nascent protest movement ahead of his inauguration to a third Kremlin term.

Russia's current premier will crown his thumping March presidential election win with a glitzy inauguration on Monday that includes a booming 30-gun salute and a special blessing from Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill.

Leaders of protests that gripped Moscow following fraud-tainted legislative polls in December had set Sunday as their target for showing the ex-KGB spy how far Russia has evolved since his domination of the country from 2000 to 2008.

They cancelled several post-Putin election rallies after mustering only a fraction of the 100,000 people who joined the biggest demonstrations, and announced plans for a "March of Millions" that would take the Russian capital by storm.

But only 10,000 users had pledged their attendance on Russia's VK Internet forum, while police reports from the Siberian city of Irkutsk said just 70 people had come to an event organised for more than 1,000.

A police source in the Far East port of Vladivostok told Interfax that 50 attended a march along that struggling city's main road.

Similar small numbers were reported in central Russia as well.

The demonstration along a main Moscow thoroughfare toward a square opposite the river from the Kremlin for its part was to conclude with a meeting that city authorities officially limited to 5,000 people.

The flagging protest numbers underscore the trouble the fractured movement - its ranks filled with everyone from veteran liberals to teenage Stalinists - will have in finding direction during Putin's six-year term.

The media have been dominated by the state since the Russian strongman's first term, while his 46-point win over his nearest rival underscores that criticism of party politics does not necessarily translate to Putin himself.

And protesters who did try to reach Moscow from the regions complained of a concerted police campaign to prevent them from getting far.

Media in Putin's home town of Saint Petersburg said traffic police had stopped several buses and taken vehicle documents to prevent them from heading to Moscow.

Others turned to the social networks to vent their frustration.

An activist in the industrial city of Ufa tweeted that three people were detained while boarding a train and jailed for three days for allegedly picking a fight.

Putin's supporters made certain that the opposition did not get the last say before Monday's ceremony by planning a Sunday "celebration" of 50,000 people at Victory Park - a site dedicated to Russia's 1812 defeat of Napoleon.

A top city official said Putin's group did not need permission to bring out such large numbers onto a public square because "what they will be having is not a rally or a march or a protest."

"It will be a mass cultural event," Moscow regional security department head Alexei Mayorov told Russian news agencies.

The entire transition from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev to his mentor has been tightly scripted from the moment their intended job swap was revealed to the public last year.

The plan will see Medvedev visit parliament only hours after Putin's swearing-in ceremony to begin consultations that could see his candidacy for the premiership approved by Tuesday evening.

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