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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin shed a tear after his re-election on Sunday. His aides insist it was just the wind, not a tear of joy. We can be certain that protesters were not crying for joy, because the day after the election, they called for a Russia without Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

INSKEEP: The rally in Moscow was peaceful, but riot police moved in with force after the speeches. They arrested about 250 people who refused to leave.

And we have more this morning from NPR's Martha Wexler.

MARTHA WEXLER, BYLINE: An estimated 15,000 Muscovites jammed into Pushkin Square yesterday evening, standing in the snow and cold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: Put Putin in a jail cell. Putin in a jail cell, they cried. In fact, it was some of the demonstrators and protest organizers who ended up in custody.

Among those rounded up was Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who's become the opposition movement's most charismatic leader. He and the others were later released.

Sunday, after Putin's victory at the polls, the president-elect suggested that the recent street protests were intended to usurp power and destroy the Russian state. Speakers at Monday's rally branded Putin the usurper and they kept sounding the theme of Putin as a thief.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

WEXLER: Navalny, a lawyer, became a celebrity by uncovering official corruption on a mass scale and blogging about it. Last night he asked the crowd, what did you expect of this band of crooks and thieves? He invoked the catchy term he's used to brand Putin's ruling party.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking foreign language)

WEXLER: For twelve years, these people have looked at us every day and said, we're going to plunder you, steal from you and swindle you. Yesterday they robbed us. This crowd believes that Putin stole the election by preventing parties from registering and dominating television coverage. And they're convinced there was widespread abuse of absentee voting Sunday.

But analyst Marsha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center doesn't think the vote violations Sunday were as egregious as in the December parliamentary elections. Evidence of vote fraud then sent much bigger crowds into the streets.

MARTHA LIPMAN: And the fact that, at least in Moscow, the actual tricks played are more clever, not as heavy-handed, and very hard to crack, to me is a good sign.

WEXLER: As for the mass rallies, Lipman thinks the movement may be fizzling out. Fewer people turned up for yesterday's protest than for earlier demonstrations. And there's a change in tone.

LIPMAN: The more radical leaders have switched back to their tactics that had existed before the mass rallies in a direct standoff with the police, and the police has acted pretty much the same fashion that it used to act before the rallies became massive.

WEXLER: She says yesterday's anti-Putin rhetoric was also sharper. The barbs came from politicians of all stripes, from liberals to nationalists. A philosophy student at a Moscow University named Dmitri said he doesn't like any of the political parties on the scene, but he came to send a message to Putin.

DMITRI: A reformation of the political system, the whole system, so that there will be a choice, for example, in elections, so the people will have a choice when they go to them, because in this election there was no choice.

WEXLER: Dmitri believes there's a chance Putin will listen. Marsha Lipman says the mass rally movement has already achieved quite a lot.

LIPMAN: Civic activism that has now engaged many more people, and this is a really dramatic change in the rise of civic sentiments.

WEXLER: Thousands of Russians served as election monitors, a time-consuming commitment, and many of the young professionals who'd been turning up at the protests ran for and won seats in the local Moscow government, a development she finds heartening. As for the impact of the protest movement on Putin, she expects in the short term a combination of crackdowns and small concessions from the Kremlin.

The protests, she says, have put a crack in Putin's legitimacy, despite his big win at the polls. Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow.

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