- Putin critics say they're showing their commitment to democracy
- Putin is seeking a third term as president on March 4
- Protests flared after a disputed parliamentary vote in December
Critics of Russia's once and possibly future president, Vladimir Putin, attempted to encircle central Moscow with a human chain Sunday in a show of strength before next week's presidential election.
The attempt to complete a circuit of Moscow's 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) "Garden Ring" road fell short, and participants said they expected Putin would be swept back into the Kremlin next Sunday. But the demonstration was a new sign of the discontent that flared up after Russia's disputed parliamentary elections in December.
"Civil society is getting together and is ready to say clearly that we are ready to fight for our freedom and for our right to vote for parties we like," one man who attended the demonstration told CNN.
The state news outlet RIA Novosti quoted police as saying 11,000 people turned out Sunday, far below the estimated 34,000 needed to complete the human chain. The agency quoted opposition activists who put the number at 40,000 and said the ring was broken along intersections to allow car traffic to pass, but CNN observed some significant gaps along the route.
Putin handed over the presidency to ally Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, when he was barred from seeking a third consecutive term. After spending four years as prime minister, he announced in December that he would seek the presidency again in the March 4 vote.
Putin has dominated Russian politics since 1999, and human rights groups say civil liberties and democratic freedoms have suffered during his rule. But opponents took to the streets by the thousands after his United Russia party won a narrow majority in December parliamentary elections that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said were "slanted in favor of the ruling party."
The leading opposition candidate in next Sunday's vote is Russia's third-richest man, billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.