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Originally published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:11 AM

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Tens of thousands attend pro-Putin rally in Moscow

Tens of thousands of people marched along the Moscow River and then packed a soccer stadium on Thursday for a campaign rally in support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Many of them appeared to be state employees who attended at the behest of their employers.

Associated Press

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MOSCOW —

Tens of thousands of people marched along the Moscow River and then packed a soccer stadium on Thursday for a campaign rally in support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Many of them appeared to be state employees who attended at the behest of their employers.

Putin is running for a third term as president in an election on March 4. He is seen as certain to win, but is facing the first outburst of public discontent during his 12 years in power from a protest movement that has drawn tens of thousands to its rallies.

Putin was expected to address the rally inside the Luzhniki stadium, where about 100,000 people crowded the stands and pitch.

The pro-Putin rally was a response to the opposition protests, which have been embraced by Russia's middle class and young urban professionals.

Most of the participants on Thursday appeared to be workers paid or dependent on the state, including teachers, municipals workers and employees of state companies. Some said they were promised two days off in return for attending.

Many at the rally were reluctant to explain why they came or offered only perfunctory statements in support of Putin. Some were brought by bus or train from other cities around Russia.

Some march participants, however, offered genuine praise.

"I love Putin and Putin loves me," said Vladimir Gryzlov, a 68-year-old musician who brought his accordion.

With him was 70-year-old Tatyana Goytseva, who said it was "too late for us to change our leaders."

"We are happy with them, but of course the young people don't think the same," said Goytseva, a social worker who helps the elderly. She said her three grandchildren were not voting for Putin.

Putin has four challengers, including three veteran party leaders who long ago reached an accommodation with the Kremlin and pose little challenge to Putin's authority. The only newcomer is Mikhail Prokhorov, a 46-year-old billionaire businessman who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Prokhorov's candidacy has been viewed as a Kremlin-approved effort to add legitimacy to the election and channel the discontent of the protesters.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko, was denied the right to run.

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