MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of people Saturday held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has ever seen to criticize electoral fraud and demand an end to Vladimir Putin's rule.

Police showed restraint and state-controlled TV gave the nationwide demonstrations unexpected airtime, but there is no indication the opposition is strong enough to push for real change from the prime minister or his ruling party.

Nonetheless, the prime minister seems to be in a weaker position than he was a week ago, before Russians voted in parliamentary elections. His United Party lost a substantial share of its seats, although it retains a majority.

Putin "has stopped being the national leader -- in the eyes of his team, the ruling political class and society," Alexei Malachenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote on his blog.

Putin, who was the president of Russia from 2000 to 2008 before stepping aside because of term limits, will seek a new term in the Kremlin in the presidential elections in March. The protests, begun over reports of irregularities during last week's parliamentary elections, have tarnished his campaign, but Putin has no strong challenger.

The most dramatic of Saturday's protests saw a crowd jam a Moscow square and adjacent streets. Although police estimated the crowd at 30,000, aerial photos suggested far more and protest organizers claimed numbers ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 or more.

Elsewhere in Russia, some 7,000 protesters assembled in St. Petersburg, and demonstrations ranging from a few hundred people to a thousand took place in more than 60 other cities. Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide.

The police restraint was one of several signs that conditions may be easing for the beleaguered opposition, at least in the short term. Although city authorities generally refuse opposition forces permission to rally or limit the gatherings to small attendance, most of the protests Saturday were sanctioned.

Moscow permitted up to 30,000 people to rally, and police took no action when the crowd appeared to exceed that. Police also allowed an unauthorized protest to take place in Revolution Square.

State-controlled television, which generally ignores or disparages opposition groups, broadcast footage not only of the Moscow protest -- which was so big it would have been hard not to report -- but in several other cities as well.

United Russia official Andrei Isayev Saturday acknowledged the opposition "point of view is extremely important and will be heard in the mass media, society and the state."

The opposition says the next large Moscow protest will be Dec. 24.

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