Russian strongman Vladimir Putin on Thursday issued a battle-cry to tens of thousands of supporters packing Moscow's largest sports stadium as he predicted victory in next month's presidential election.
Putin declared in a fiery and nationalist-tinged speech to 130,000 people in the Luzhniki stadium that Russians had victory written into their "genetic code" and would not allow foreigners to meddle in their country's affairs.
Playing on themes of patriotism on a national holiday to mark the Defenders of the Fatherland public holiday, Putin invoked historical events like the 1812 Battle of Borodino that Russia fought against Napoleon.
"The battle for Russia continues, the victory will be ours," Putin said, speaking from a giant blue stage in a stadium that usually hosts the biggest football matches and rock concerts.
"We will not allow anyone to impose their will on us. We have our own will and this has always helped us be victorious," said Putin. "We are a victorious nation. This is in our genes. This is in our genetic code."
The event is a riposte to the mass rallies staged by the opposition since December 4 parliamentary elections which have turned into a protest movement against his bid for a third Kremlin term in March 4 presidential polls.
"We will be victorious," said Putin. He then turned to the crowd and asked: "And I want to ask you. Will we be victorious?" The tens of thousands in the crowd roared back: "Yes!"
The rally coincided with Russia's annual Defenders of the Fatherland public holiday, a militaristic celebration that in Soviet times commemorated the achievements of the Red Army.
"We call on everyone to unite around our country, those who see Russia as their own motherland, who are ready to protect her, cherish her and believe in her," said Putin.
Just before the strongman prime minister's arrival a festive atmosphere filled the giant venue, with some participants dancing and others holding red heart-shaped balloons reading "For Putin."
Pancakes were served for those wishing to bid farewell to Russia's long gloomy winter as part of ongoing Pancake Week traditionally celebrated in the country.
"We came because it is a holiday and also because we support the candidate," said 29-year old Svetlana Filakova, as she stood in line for a serving of porridge.
Claims have multiplied ahead of the rally that employees of state companies were ordered to attend the pro-Putin meeting, with blue-collar workers being brought to Moscow by train or bus from across Russia.
Some participants admitted they had no choice but to show up.
"It's my birthday and they dragged me here," said Vladimir puffing on a cigarette. "The people came here not voluntarily but were forced," he said declining to give his last name for fear of reprisals.
"At work they said 'Go along. You just try not going'. Tomorrow we are given a holiday."
Putin's campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin denied that anyone was being forced to take part in the event.
"We are not rounding up anyone, we are inviting everyone," he told Russian reporters.
The opposition says that Putin's once impregnable popularity is plummeting amid the protests, although his minders insist the Russian strongman still enjoys the majority's support.
In a show of confidence, Putin had until now carried out almost no explicit campaigning, letting his allies represent him in television debates and not entering into the mudslinging between other candidates.
Despite the protests, Putin is still widely expected to easily win the election, with the main intrigue focused on whether he will be able to win over 50 percent on March 4 and avoid a second round.
Putin announced in September he would be seeking a third term as Russian president after his four-year stint as prime minister, in a scheme cooked up with President Dmitry Medvedev who should in turn become government chief.
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