Massive rallies were held across Russia on Saturday in support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to reclaim presidency in next month's elections.

About 60,000 people attended the biggest rally in St. Petersburg, according to police. Independent estimates were far more modest, but across Russia tens of thousands took to the streets to declare their loyalty to Mr. Putin.

The rallies were organised by pro-government trade unions in response to mass anti-Putin rallies that rolled over Russia in recent months. Speakers at pro-Putin rallies accused opponents of conspiring to stage a “coloured revolution” in Russia and accepting money from Western sponsors. Demonstrators carried slogans that said: “We want great Russia, not great upheavals,” “No to orange revolution in Russia,” and “Putin means stability.”

Critics said authorities used carrot and stick to get government and private company employees take part in the pro-Putin rallies. People called in the liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, to complain that they were forced to attend against their will.

Saturday's demonstrations come ahead of a huge pro-Putin rally in Moscow scheduled for February 23 that organisers said would draw 200,000 people from all over Russia. A rival anti-Putin action is being planned for February 26, in which tens of thousands are expected to form a human chain around the capital's 16-km Garden Ring road.

There is little doubt that Mr. Putin will win the March 4 presidential election as none of his four opponents is capable of offering him credible challenge. However, the opposition has called on Russians to vote for any candidate but Mr. Putin in order to force a runoff. The newly-formed Voters' League has focused on deploying independent observers at all polling stations to prevent vote rigging that marred a parliamentary election in December and triggered large-scale protests in Moscow and other cities.

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