MOSCOW Sergey Romanchuk has had a stellar career. At 37, he heads the currency dealing department at a top commercial bank in Moscow and drives a Jaguar.
Romanchuk has found success and wealth under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But now he wants him out and is joining the ranks of protesters who say a parliamentary election on Dec 4 was rigged to favour Putin's United Russia party.
"At first I was simply curious to see who these people are who voted for United Russia in such numbers," Romanchuk said, explaining his decision to work last Sunday as an election observer for the liberal Yabloko party.
He has compiled a four-page report, supported by video footage, which tells how stacks of ballots for United Russia were thrown into ballot boxes and is now helping prepare a court case.
"The scale of the election fraud leaves no room for compromise (with the authorities)," said Romanchuk, who wrote a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev asking him to annul the election results and sack the head of the election commission.
Putin, who will seek his third term as president in an election in March, faces growing dissent among successful Russians like Romanchuk who have prospered in the market economy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is a problem that is likely to haunt the 59-year-old leader until he does more to acknowledge their growing role in society.
Putin's own economic policy and a surge in the price of oil, Russia's main export commodity, have resulted in the emergence of a mass 'middle class' of moderately wealthy professional people concentrated mainly in the large cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.
There are signs the Kremlin is ready to accommodate their demands for political representation, but Putin has struggled to convince the middle class he has a coherent strategy for dealing with it in a political system that is dominated by one man.
PROBLEMS CREATING PARTY FOR MIDDLE CLASS
"There are two things (lacking in Russian politics). The first one is a mass liberal party. Or, to put it more precisely, a party of irritated urban communities," the Kremlin's chief domestic policy adviser, Vladislav Surkov, said this week in an interview with a prominent Russian journalist.
"They should be given parliamentary representation," Surkov, the Kremlin's "grey cardinal" who created Russia's tightly controlled political system, said in the interview, which appeared on journalist Sergei Minayev's blog.
But the Kremlin's plans to promote a middle-class party before last Sunday's election to the State Duma, the lower House of parliament, broke down when its leader, metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, departed from the script.
After apparently backing his rise to the leadership of the small pro-business party Right Cause, the Kremlin pulled the rug from under him in September, with Surkov orchestrating the removal of Prokhorov and his supporters.
Prokhorov likened Surkov to a puppet master and said the Kremlin had "privatised" the political system.
"Surkov does not understand that all of a sudden, thanks to the high oil price, there is middle class in Russia," said Oleg Tinkov, owner of retail bank Tinkov Credit Systems.
"We are no longer happy with the pact 'Sausage in exchange for democracy'. We spend one or two months a year abroad, we speak three languages and we think," he said.
Late Russian general and politician Alexander Lebed once said most Russians did not care who they were ruled by as long as they could buy six kinds of sausage and cheap vodka. Those days, it seems, are over.
Protests after Sunday's election, in which United Russia had its domination of the Duma reduced to a slim majority, swelled on Monday into the biggest opposition rally in Moscow in years.
Hundreds more protested on Monday but police have been out in force in the capital to prevent further rallies. The opposition, however, has been granted permission to protest in cities across the country on Saturday.
The protests have drawn an unusually high number of office workers and businessmen, angered by allegations that United Russia's election result would have been even worse had it not been for alleged fraud such as ballot-stuffing.
The widely-resented super-rich, with their homes abroad, planes and yachts, have, not unexpectedly, played no evident role in protests. The 'working classes', low-earning industrial labourers courted by the communist party, are also yet to make their mark.
The protest leaders include lawyer Alexei Navalny, who gained popularity through his attacks on corruption in state companies on his blog, and Yevgeniya Chirikova, who has an MBA master's degree in business administration and has conducted a campaign to protect a suburban forest.
More traditional opposition forces such as the communists have not been involved in the protests although they also say the election was rigged, a charge United Russia leaders' deny.
The Centre for Strategic Research, which works for the government, estimated that the share of the middle class would grow from 20 percent of the population now to 40 percent by 2020 if the economy grew at a rate of 4 to 5 percent each year.
In a report unveiled last month, the centre said the middle class would become the driving force for a political transformation in Russia and would threaten Putin's leadership.
It defined the middle class as people whose income is enough to buy housing using a mortgage, and put the per capita monthly income needed to afford a mortgage at 25,000 roubles ($800 dollars).
"Recent events show that what we had predicted is happening faster than we expected," said Sergei Belanovsky, one of the authors of the study.
Most political analysts say Putin is likely to regain the presidency in an election in March, but Belanovsky said: "We are entering a period of turbulence. One extreme outcome would be that Putin did not become president."
Putin, who grew up in a rough working class neighbourhood, feels at ease talking to nationalistic football fans or angry rural dwellers who lost their homes in forest fires last year. He seems less comfortable before a more sophisticated audience.
The former KGB colonel has made jokes about liberal intellectuals with "goatee beards" and sometimes accuses his critics of conspiring with the West to undermine his course for stability.
Putin's anointing of Medvedev, who unlike his friend grew up in a family of academics and could find common ground with urban intellectuals, as president in 2008 temporarily united the middle class behind the Kremlin. The constitution barred Putin from seeking a third successive term.
But over the course of his four-year presidency, Medvedev's inability to carry out political reforms and deliver results in fighting corruption and creating a fair judicial system have gradually alienated middle-class voters who want faster change.
NO ROOM FOR COMPROMISE
Medvedev's rhetoric has triggered an increase in social activity, with people joining communities such as Blue Buckets, a movement which tracks and reports cases of traffic rule violations by high ranking bureaucrats.
This is a parody of the flashing blue lights on the limousines of top officials which sweep through Moscow's traffic jams, often with a police escort forcing other drivers to clear the way.
Drivers brought to a standstill as their leaders speed by have started showing their frustration in Moscow by making a cacophony with their horns.
Putin's decision to run for president, and Medvedev's meek agreement to make way for him and lead United Russia's parliamentary election campaign, have for many middle-class voters ended any remaining hope that Medvedev can bring change.
"How can one have any respect for him?" said Sergei, a mid-level manager at state gas firm Gazprom, where Medvedev once chaired the board of directors.
Yevgeniya Albats, editor of the opposition-leaning weekly magazine The New Times, said: "Since September 24 (the day of the United Russia congress where the decision was announced) the politician Dmitry Medvedev simply does not exist."
Medvedev has become the target of many jokes and derogatory remarks on the Internet. Some call him the "Twitter President" because of his liking of social networks and gadgets.
In a sign of their mistrust of United Russia, the protesters
refer to United Russia as the "party of swindlers and thieves".
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the prime minister had sought to attract middle-class voters through the People's Front, a movement created a few months ago to woo independent activists to run for parliament on United Russia's ticket even though they are not party members.
"These people will receive a very serious representation in parliament through the People's Front," Peskov said. "Many of the Front members have nothing in common with United Russia but they will use it as an instrument."
Peskov said that before the presidential election voters expect to see "Putin, version 2.0" and that the risks posed by the middle class discontent will be addressed in his campaign programme, which will be unveiled in February.
This may be too little, too late for some middle-class voters.
"I will be happy only if this election result is annulled and both Putin and Medvedev resign," Romanchuk said.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)