Russia: Around 15,000 people Saturday thronged a city in the Russian Urals in a rally organised by labour groups to show mass working-class support for Vladimir Putin's bid for a new Kremlin term, police said.

The rally in Yekaterinburg appeared to be a move by the authorities and trade unions to show Putin retains broad workers' support after the mass protests against his rule mainly attended by the Moscow middle class.

The demonstrators held up pro-Putin banners reading "Russia Needs a Strong President" and "We Support a Stable Future" as well as ones expressing pride at being workers -- "A Metalworker -- Something to Be Proud of".

Regional police spokesman Valery Gorelykh told the Interfax news agency that the "meeting had proceeded calmly without any violations of the public order" and attracted some 15,000 people.
The rally took place on the massive square in front of the railway station in Yekakerinburg, a position that allowed other workers to be easily brought in by train or bus in from the neighbouring Chelyabinsk and Perm regions.

Workers in their blue and black factory jackets were joined by grandmothers wrapped up against the freezing temperatures and touting the economic stability that Putin brought to Russia in his decade in power.

The meeting was presented as the brainchild of workers from the Uralvagonzavod factory in Yekaterinburg, a plant famed worldwide as the producer of the T-90 tank.

One of the factory's workers, a man named Igor Kholmanskikh, had told Putin during his phone-in with the nation on December 15 that he was ready with his colleagues to help implement security in the opposition protests.

"If our police are unable to work or cope then myself and my mates are ready to come ourselves and ensure stability -- of course within the limits of the law," he said in comments that have now become famous across Russia.

The Russian Trade Union Federation -- a body that groups around 25 million workers -- is planning pro-Putin meetings across Russian in the run-up to the March 4 presidential elections in a bid to outshine the opposition protests.

A mass pro-Putin rally is expected in Moscow next Saturday, the same day when the opposition is planning a huge march though the south of the capital expected to be attended by tens of thousands.
Analysts have said the protest wave has shown a split in Russian society with the middle class -- who now holiday abroad and access the Internet through smartphones -- far more inclined to back the anti-Putin movement.

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- who has emerged as one of the most prominent supporters of the protest movement -- called for the holding of a referendum to end what he described as an "autocracy" under Putin.

Russians should be asked: "Do you support political and constitutional reform which would end autocracy and guarantee democracy?" Gorbachev wrote on the website of the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper, of which he is part owner.