1,500 rally against Putin in Russian Far East

At least 1,500 people rallied against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Far East city of Vladivostok in the first of a string of opposition rallies planned across Russia on Saturday.

Critics of the Kremlin declared a national day of protest in a bid to mobilize those angry at the government's handling of the worst economic slump in a decade, after local elections showed a drop in support for the ruling party.

To cheers from the crowd on a snow-covered square, leaders of a coalition of opposition groups read out a list of demands that included the dismissal of Putin's government and the return of direct elections for governors, scrapped in 2004.

Most banners focused on economic demands, including reversing recent hikes in charges for municipal services, increasing pensions, and cutting taxes on the import of used cars, a major industry in the Pacific port city.

"People have been left without the means to live, and they blame the government," said Alexander Krinitsky, an activist with the Solidarity movement and one of the protest leaders. "We have no choice but to take to the streets."

Protests in recent months have demonstrated that opposition to Putin's United Russia party has grown since the start of the economic crisis, which brought a sudden end to 10 years of growth and has driven unemployment above 9 per cent.

Last year, gross domestic product fell by about 8 per cent, Russia's worst performance since 1994.

"What the government has done to us is outrageous," said protester Sergei Khudenkykh who lost his job importing used cars when the government hiked tariffs to protect domestic producers. "I don't understand who my little business bothered."

Organizers complained that the authorities had made efforts to keep protesters away, including issuing reports to local media that the protest had been banned and seizing leaflets advertising the rally.

But only a few dozen police were visible, far fewer than in recent protests in Russia. In 2008, the Russian government flew riot police from Moscow to Vladivostok to confront an unsanctioned protest where they detained 100 people.

Organizers said they expected large protests in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Several other rallies have been banned by local authorities, raising the possibility of clashes with police.