MOSCOW — 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 people in the Luzhniki stadium that Russians have victory written into their "genetic code" and would not allow foreigners to meddle in their country's affairs.
Playing on themes of patriotism to mark the Defenders of the Fatherland public holiday, Putin invoked historical events like the 1812 Battle of Borodino outside Moscow 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. This gets passed from generation to generation."
The event was a clear riposte to the movement that has staged rallies gathering tens of thousands of people to protest 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.
In a speech littered with patriotic rhetoric, Putin said: "We ask everyone not to look abroad, not to run to the left, to the side, and not to be unfaithful to their motherland.".
He cited romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov's verses describing the 1812 Battle of Borodino that imperial Russia fought against Napoleon and also quoted Sergei Yesenin, the son of a Russian peasant who proclaimed his love for "Golden Russia" in lyric verses.
A festive atmosphere filled venue, with some participants dancing and others holding red heart-shaped balloons reading "For Putin". Pancakes were served as part of ongoing traditional Pancake Week marking the end of winter.
The rally wound up with a performance by patriotic Russian rock group Lyube, a favourite band of Putin.
"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.
But claims 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, 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.
In a show of confidence, Putin had until now carried out almost no explicit campaigning, letting his allies represent him in television debates. His campaign team said Thursday's rally was the last mass event before the polls.
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.
Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said the speech could help win votes with a message of "Putin is the only saviour, without him everything will collapse and Russia is surrounded by enemies."
"Tactically, this could help mobilise support in the elections," Lipman said. But she added: "Strategically, it does not help Russia as the country cannot be modernised with such a world view."
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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