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ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hometown of St Petersburg in a new wave of opposition on Saturday, demanding his resignation before a presidential vote next week he is all but certain to win.
The state-authorised rally, led by anti-corruption blogger and opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, attracted around 3,500 people carrying balloons and wearing the white ribbons that have become the mark of the fledgling opposition movement.
Victory in next week's poll would extend Putin's 12 year rule by at least another six years.
"Is it time for new revolution? Yes or no? We want a peaceful revolution ... These thieves are afraid of our peaceful revolution," Navalny told a cheering crowd under low grey skies in Russia's second city.
Tens of thousands have turned out for opposition protests around the country since a December 4 parliamentary election in which Putin's United Russia party won a slim majority, alleging electoral fraud and calling for him to quit.
The demonstrations are by far the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago, and have been led by an emerging educated middle class frustrated by the lack of alternatives to Putin.
The former KGB officer is the overwhelming favourite to win the presidential election on March 4.
The St Petersburg protest featured posters with slogans such as "Putin you're fired", "free political prisoners" and "we want free elections".
"The strategy is very simple. Vote for anyone against Putin ... These are not elections ... This is the reappointment of Putin, one more step towards being a Tsar," Navalny told reporters ahead of the march.
Navalny, who spent 15 days in prison in December on charges of obstructing justice at a Moscow demonstration, said he wanted to bring the protest movement to St Petersburg to show the anti-Putin feeling existed outside the Russian capital of Moscow.
"St Petersburg is key. I am sure that the city will express its political will and become a significant part of the nationwide protest. All the leaders of the groups of swindlers and thieves came from here, and St. Petersburg needs to eliminate them," Navalny said.
Putin was born and educated in St Petersburg, as was Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing President and the other half of Russia's ruling tandem since 2008.
"We are against Putin and against unfair elections. I think people are here not because of Navalny, they would come even without him," said 18-year-old protester Igor.
Navalny was joined by other opposition leaders including former chess world champion Gary Kasparov and Sergei Udaltsov, a co-ordinator of the Left Front opposition group.
Udaltsov said another major Moscow rally was being planned for March 8 - a Russian public holiday for women's day - and that he hoped 500,000 people would turn out.
"We must not allow them to cheat us again," he said.
Putin is expected to win the March 4 election with two thirds of the vote, easily enough to avoid a humiliating second round run off, the last major poll before the vote showed on Friday.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon jailed by Putin in a case critics says was politically motivated, will add his voice to the opposition movement in an article in German magazine Focus to be published on the day of the election.
He will urge Russians to "think strategically" and focus on the four alternative candidates to Putin, the magazine said.
Additional reporting by Liza Dobkina; Writing By John Bowker; Editing by Ruth Pitchford