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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of Hungarians marched across central Budapest on Monday in a show of support for the European Union, protesting against what a new political movement sees as a creeping rise in Russian influence under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The rally follows a series of major demonstrations in Budapest in recent weeks, triggered by a new law that would drive out of Hungary a top university founded by U.S. financier George Soros.
That law has elevated to national prominence a new political movement, Momentum, that called for Monday's rally, dubbed "We belong to Europe." Momentum got its start in the campaign, ultimately successful, to torpedo Orban's bid for Budapest to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Orban, a former critic of Moscow, changed tack after returning to power in a 2010 landslide. In a key speech, he called for transforming Hungary into an "illiberal state," citing Russia and Turkey as templates for success.
He still holds a firm lead in opinion polls before next April's election. But on Saturday he told leaders of his centre-right EU political group on Saturday he would comply with demands from Brussels to change measures branded an attack on academic freedom.
"Viktor Orban's performance at the European Parliament has shown that it is not only Hungarians who are tired of Orban and his Fidesz party," said Daniel Kiss, a 23-year-old university student, who carried EU flags at the rally with his girlfriend.
"He blasts the EU, but at the same time, we need European money to stay afloat," he said. "We have had enough."
Orban has said Hungary to should remain a member of the EU, but is also seeking reforms and wants to avoid a further loss of national sovereignty.
In the past seven years, Orban, 53, has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of the public media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court, and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.
Despite last month's street protests, the fragmented Hungarian opposition so far looks unable to mount a serious challenge to oust Orban.
An April survey by think tank Zavecz Research put support for Orban's ruling Fidesz party at 27 percent of all voters. The Socialist party scored 13 percent, the nationalist Jobbik 11 percent and Momentum just 2 percent support.
Even some protesters, like 26-year-old Bence, who wore a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the back of his head, were sceptical of a breakthrough next April.
"In such an election system, even Momentum or some other smaller opposition party getting into parliament would be a big deal," he said. "But that is just what this is all about."
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Larry King