Tensions are rising in Moscow ahead of Sunday's presidential election, as opposition protesters prepare for their biggest demonstration on the day after the vote.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime Minister, has claimed that opposition forces are preparing a "provocation" to try and lure authorities into violence, while opposition activists have proclaimed the elections illegitimate.
There was a plan to hand out tents to protesters and mount a "sleep-in" protest like the one that prompted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, when thousands of protesters set up a tent city in Kiev's main square and refused to leave. But police prevented the tents from being distributed, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said any attempts to create camps in the city will be crushed.
Opposition activists say Mr Putin has enjoyed a monopoly of the airwaves, and that the real opposition has been kept off the ballot while those standing against Mr Putin are all "Kremlin stooges". They also complain that government employees and civil servants are being pressured to vote for Mr Putin.
Thousands of young Russians are planning to volunteer as election observers to stop fraudulent practices such as "carousel" voting, where people are paid to vote several times at different polling stations.
Mr Putin, who served two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, needs 50 per cent of the votes to avoid a second-round run-off. While the latest polls suggest he will do so comfortably, the Kremlin is apparently taking no chances.
The protest movement, led by a motley crew of democrats, radicals and nationalists, has been gradually gaining pace since parliamentary elections in December, when Mr Putin's United Russia party won 56 per cent of the vote amid widespread allegations of fraud.
Mr Putin said that the opposition was now trying to provoke a violent outcome to the presidential election. "They definitely want clashes, and are trying everything to provoke this," he said.
"They are ready even to sacrifice someone themselves and then blame the authorities... I know this tactic well, it has been around for 10 years, mainly in other countries." Mr Putin also said that the opposition was planning to "falsify" the election themselves, in order that they could then accuse him of not winning cleanly. "They'll stuff the ballots... and then complain about it," he said.
Despite Mr Putin's rhetoric, both opposition leaders and the Moscow authorities pulled back from the brink yesterday and agreed a location for Monday's protest. The opposition wanted a site near the Kremlin, while the authorities would only offer more distant venues. However, the two sides have agreed on the central Pushkin Square, just a five-minute walk from the Kremlin.
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