Thousands rally for Putin in Russian industrial belt

YEKATERINBURG, Russia - Thousands of supporters of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rallied on Saturday to back his bid to return to the Kremlin, a week before what are likely to be far larger opposition protests to demand greater political choice.
Police said around 10,000 people gathered in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, with many brought on buses and trains from outlying towns in the Urals industrial belt to back Putin before the March 4 presidential vote.
Putin enjoys strong support in many Russian regions, but faces criticism from the urban middle class, especially in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Effectively excluded from mainstream politics, middle class Russians have taken to the Internet to call for sweeping electoral reform.
Tens of thousands people from different parties and others, unaffiliated to any political organization, are expected to take part in a protest march on Feb 4 to press "For fair elections" in Moscow, which was approved by the city's authorities.
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