Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev calls on Putin to resign as 50,000 take to the streets of Moscow to protest over vote-rigging claims

Last updated at 12:11 AM on 25th December 2011

Mikhail Gorbachev, who resigned as Soviet president 20 years ago Sunday, has urged Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to follow his example and step down.

Gorbachev said if Putin resigned now, he would be remembered for the positive things he did during his 12 years in power.

The former Soviet leader spoke on Ekho Moskvy radio yesterday after a new wave of protests against alleged election fraud drew tens of thousands to Moscow’s streets.

It was the largest show of public outrage since the protests in 1991 that brought down the Soviet Union.

Turnout: Tens of thousands of demonstrators rally in the Russian capital in what is believed to be the largest protest so far against election fraud

Ridicule: As thousands take to the streets of Moscow in protest, a placard shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin draped in a condom in reference to remarks he made mistaking white ribbons worn by protesters for contraceptives

Appeal: Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev has called on Vladimir Putin to resign as Prime Minister

Organisers of the demonstration hope it will be as large as a protest two weeks ago that drew tens of thousands – the largest show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse – although rallies in other cities in the far east and Siberia earlier today drew much smaller crowds.

Rally participants began gathering on a broad avenue about 2.5 kilometres from the Kremlin on a snowy day.

Nearly 53,000 people have so far signed up on Facebook to take part.

A stage at one side of the 700-meter (0.43 mile) avenue featured placards reading ‘Russia Will be Free’ and ‘This Election is a Farce’.

‘We want to back those who are fighting for our rights,’ said 16-year-old Darya Andryukhina, who said she also attended the previous rally.

‘People have come here because they want respect,’ said Tamara Voronina, 54, who said she was proud of her three sons who had also joined the protest.

Recent protests in Moscow and other cities have dented Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s authority as he seeks to reclaim the presidency in next March’s vote.

The Kremlin has responded by promising a set of political reforms that would liberalise election rules.

But protest leaders say they will continue pushing for a rerun of the December 4 parliamentary election and punishment for officials accused of fraud. They say maintaining momentum is key to forcing the government to accept their demands.

Outnumbered: A policeman struggles to escape from the clutches of angry demonstrators at the start of yesterday’s protest against election results

Outcry: Demonstrators hold placards with slogans such as ‘Russia Will be Free’ and ‘This Election is a Farce’

The protests have reflected a growing public frustration with Putin, who ruled Russia as president in 2000-2008, and has remained the nation’s No. 1 leader after moving into the premier’s seat due to a constitutional term limit.

Putin has accused the U.S. of fomenting the protests in order to weaken Russia and said, sarcastically, that he thought the white ribbons many protesters wear as an emblem were condoms.

In a response to Putin’s blustery rhetoric, one protester Saturday held a picture montage of Putin with his head wrapped in a condom like a grandmother’s headscarf.

Another one held a sign saying: ‘Hillary, I’m still Waiting for My Money,’ referring to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Balloons: More than 40,000 Russians signed up online to join the protests in Moscow

Activists hold a placard during a protest in the far eastern city of Vladivostok (left) while a member of a flashmob wears a sticker over his mouth, which reads ‘They stole our votes’

Although he derided the demonstrators as Western stooges, Putin has also sought to soothe public anger by promising to relax his grip on the nation’s political scene.

He has promised to liberalise registration rules for opposition parties and restore the direct election of governors he abolished in 2004.

Putin’s stand-in President Dmitry Medvedev spelled out those and other proposed changes in Thursday’s state-of-the nation address, promising to restore single-ballot elections to fill half of the seats in parliament and ease rules for the presidential election.

Some opposition leaders welcomed the proposals, but stressed the need for the protests to continue to force the Kremlin to quickly turn promises into law.

A member of the anti-vote rigging flashmob confronts two police officers in central Moscow

The electoral changes, however, will only apply to a new election cycle years away, and the opposition has stressed the need to focus on preventing fraud in the presidential election and mounting a consolidated challenge to Putin in the March vote.

In another sign of authorities’ efforts to stem a tide of public anger, the presidential human rights commission early Saturday issued a statement condemning violations in the vote and backing protesters’ calls for the ousting of Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov.

It said that allegations of widespread fraud have led to a ‘moral and political discreditation of the election system and the lower house of parliament, creating a real threat to the Russian state.’

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