By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Critics of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin drove in their hundreds around central Moscow on Sunday in cars trailing white ribbons, a symbol of Russia's protest movement, staging a mobile demonstration to demand fair elections.
Opposition leaders are trying to maintain momentum after tens of thousands of people angry over alleged election fraud and Putin's plan to return to the Kremlin in a March vote turned out last month for the biggest protests of his 12-year rule.
"This has an important symbolic meaning. We have arrived at the stage when we don't want to be vassals any more," said opposition activist Ilya Ponomaryov, who picked up hitchhikers with white ribbons in his purple sedan.
Organizers said the demonstration also aimed to advertise protest marches planned for next Saturday, exactly one month before the March 4 presidential election.
"We want to show our unity. This is very visible. This is preparatory work for February 4, when there will be even more people than on Sakharov Avenue," Ponomaryov said, referring to the site of a December 24 rally that drew tens of thousands.
Polls indicated Putin will regain the presidency, extending his rule for at least six more years. He was president from 2000-2008 and is widely believed to have been holding Russia's reins for his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev.
Some drivers resorted to white construction tape, printer paper, grocery bags and even white lace as they cruised around Moscow's Garden Ring road. Organizers said more than 3,000 motorists took part, while police put the number at about 300.
In the minus 15 C (5 F) chill, many pedestrians applauded or waved white handkerchiefs from the sidewalks in solidarity. One vehicle had a life-sized straw figure with a picture of Putin's face strapped to its hood.
Cars are a strong symbol not only of status but of personal freedom in Russia and the right to choice in a country where even ownership of a tiny Soviet-made Lada was a luxury in the communist era and foreign cars were virtually non-existent.
The protests, provoked by widespread suspicions of fraud favouring Putin's ruling party in a December 4 parliamentary election, have revealed dismay among Russians.
Middle-class city dwellers in particular feel they have no say in politics and that Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin was thrust upon them.
"We have to fight for our rights... We have to show our strength so that maybe people will see us and come to the February 4th protest," said Nadezhda, 26, who works for a state TV station. Nadezhda, who declined to give her last name, said her station had told employees not to take part in Sunday's protest.
"I feel cheated by the vote," Yevgeny Starshov, 23, a student at a state school of public administration, said of the parliamentary election.
"We have to do something to change the country for the better, not through riots or some kind of revolution but through such peaceful demonstrations to fight for more fair elections."
Thousands of Putin's supporters rallied on Saturday in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, to back his election bid.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by David Stamp)