Putin warns of foreign threat at campaign rally

MOSCOW -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against the dangers of foreign influence on Thursday at a campaign rally attended by tens of thousands of people, many of them state workers who were pressured to take part as a show of support for a leader facing his first outburst of public discontent.

With little real competition, Putin is almost certain to win a third term as president in the March 4 election. During 12 years in power, he has sidelined his political opponents and portrayed himself as the defender of a strong and prosperous Russia. His approval ratings are still running at well above 50 percent despite the largest opposition protests the country has seen since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Putin has tried to discredit the protesters by accusing their leaders of being paid agents of the United States working to weaken Russia. His references on Thursday were slightly more subtle as he called on all Russians who "cherish, care about and believe in" their motherland to unite.

"We ask everyone not to look abroad, not to run to the other side and not to deceive your motherland, but to join us," he said from a makeshift stage in a soccer stadium as a light snow fell on his bare head.

But he also warned the West: "We won't allow anyone to meddle in our affairs or impose their will upon us, because we have a will of our own."

The pro-Putin rally was held on Defenders of the Fatherland, a national holiday that replaced the Soviet-era Red Army Day. As participants marched in columns toward the stadium along the Moscow River, they carried Russian flags and wore armbands in the national colors. Patriotic songs from decades past blared from vans parked along the route.

They carried signs saying "As long as we have Putin we have a strong country."

The rally was a response to the opposition protests, which began in December after a parliamentary election that Putin's party won through what appeared to be widespread fraud.

But while the protests have been embraced by Russia's middle class and young urban professionals, many of those who attended Thursday's rally showed little enthusiasm. They included workers paid by or dependent on the state, including teachers, municipal workers and employees of state companies. Some said they had been promised two days off in return for attending.

Many people at the rally were reluctant to explain why they had come or offered only perfunctory statements in support of Putin. Some were brought by bus or train from other cities around Russia. Thousands bolted for a nearby subway station at the end of the march rather than enter the Luzhniki stadium to hear Putin.

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 she was too old to live through another change of government.

"We are happy with it, 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.