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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's go to Russia now. There's a presidential election coming in March. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win, though there are questions now about whether Putin can reach the 50 percent needed to win in a first round.

Many Russians are angry over alleged ballot-rigging during recent parliamentary elections. That anger has sparked mass demonstrations and created room for Putin's opponents to make some headway. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Moscow on the diverse and even unusual collection of players in the opposition.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On a recent cold, gray day here in Moscow, several dozen reporters and photographers milled about restlessly on the main floor of the Central Election Commission. The person they were waiting to see was supposed to be there at 10 a.m. Nearly six hours later, Mikhail Prokhorov appeared at the front door and smiled for the cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERAS SHUTTERS CLICKING)

NORTHAM: Prokhorov is six foot, eight inches and slim, and sporting a very expensive, well-cut, suit. He is one of the richest men in Russia, making most of his fortune in nickel mining. The 46-year-old Prokhorov is also the owner of the New Jersey Nets, and now he's running for president of Russia. He's got the money to organize, plenty of connections and, so far, no problems with the Kremlin.

Prokhorov was at the election commission to hand in more than two million signed forms necessary to endorse his candidacy. Quite a feat, considering he had only one month to collect the names. He looked stiff and uncomfortable, not what you would call a natural candidate. There's ongoing criticism that Prime Minister Putin brought Prokhorov into the presidential race to help split the opposition. Prokhorov denies it.

MIKHAIL PROKHOROV: (Through translator) Anything I say now will not be very convincing. So it is necessary to prove this not by words but by deeds. That's what I've always done in business.

NORTHAM: Prokhorov hopes to appeal to middle-class voters who are fed up with endemic corruption and the political elite, especially Putin. And they've taken to the streets to demand change.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

NORTHAM: The mass protests that erupted in December seemed to have breathed new life into the opposition here; everything from the political old guard, to artists and writers, to a new breed of activists using the Internet to keep the protests alive.

One of the galvanizing forces behind the opposition is a 35-year-old lawyer named Alexei Navalny.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Foreign language spoken)

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NORTHAM: Navalny is young, brash and capable of invigorating the crowds. He calls United Russia, the ruling party, the party of crooks and thieves. But Navalny isn't running for president. He says he won't until he's sure the elections will be free and fair. In fact, there's no one person leading the many activists and new movements sharing the stage with Navalny.

Commentator Konstantin von Eggert says at some point they'll have to decide whether to stay together and pursue political aims, or split up. Otherwise, he says, the protests could peter out.

KONSTANTIN VON EGGERT: People cannot live on emotions forever and this is the problem with this movement. It will eventually have to take some organized forms to which people could relate without being called to the street every third week.

NORTHAM: But organizing isn't always easy. The Kremlin can throw up obstacles that are impossible to clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

NORTHAM: A narrow flight of stairs takes you down to a cramped, dingy basement and the office of Vladimir Ryzhkov, the co-chair of the liberal People's Freedom Party. Ryzhkov was in the Duma, the parliament, for more than a decade, until the Kremlin refused to allow his party to register. Ryzhkov says it's part of Putin's systematic tightening of political freedom.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: We can't participate in elections, in any elections, on any level. Putin closed more than 40 political parties for the last four years. Now, we have only seven registered political parties, and only registered political parties could participate in elections.

NORTHAM: Those registered parties include the Communists, who are expected to place a distant second in the presidential election, a hard-right party, and every ideology in between - none of which is expected to garner many votes.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Moscow.

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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