Thousands Protests Against Putin After Russia Vote

Several thousand people protested in central Moscow on Monday against what they said was a fraudulent parliamentary election, shouting “Revolution!” and calling for an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s rule. The protest, a day after an election in which Russians sharply reduced the parliamentary majority held by Putin’s United Russia party, appeared to be one of the biggest opposition demonstrations in Russia in years. Police said they arrested 300 people including prominent activist Ilya Yashin and opposition blogger Alexei Navalny after the protesters marched towards the Lubyanka Square that houses the feared FSB security service. The observers said there had been “serious indications of ballot box stuffing” in a harsh verdict on the election that suggested United Russia could have suffered an even bigger decline in support if the voting had been completely fair. Around 250 were remained detained by Tuesday morning.

Potesters initially gathered in the rain on a tree-lined boulevard where they had permission for a rally. They denounced the vote as shameful and shouted “Russia without Putin!” Many protesters then tried to march out onto a major street and were confronted by a chain of police officers who locked elbows and divided the surging crowd into two parts. Navalny has won a huge following on the Internet for exposing corruption at state-owned firms and he coined the phrase, which has now been taken up by all the opposition, “swindlers and thieves” to describe United Russia. The result was Putin’s worst election setback since he came to power 12 years ago and signaled growing weariness with his domination of Russian politics as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in an election next March. President Dmitry Medvedev said Sunday’s election was “fair, honest and democratic,” but European monitors said the field was slanted in favour of United Russia and the vote was marred by apparent manipulations.

Putin says he brought stability to Russia after the chaos in the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and that Russians benefited from an economic boom fuelled by high oil prices during his presidency from 2000 to 2008. But many Russians now complain of widespread corruption and the growing gap between the rich and poor, and an increasing number say they are disillusioned with Putin and his party. Putin, 59, defended the party’s performance at a government meeting, saying a simple majority of 226 was enough to pass most legislation, and suggested this was sufficient to maintain stability. “United Russia has been a significant part of the foundation of our political stability in recent years, so its successful performance in the election was important not just for the government but, in my view, for the whole country,” he said. But Medvedev, who led the party into the election at Putin’s behest, said voters had sent “a signal to the authorities” and hinted that officials in regions where the party did badly could face dismissal if they do not shape up. “United Russia did not do too well in a series of regions, but not because people refuse to trust the party itself … but simply because local functionaries irritate them,” he said. “They look and they say … if that’s United Russia, there’s no way I’m going to vote for him.” Opponents said United Russia’s official result — just under 50 percent of the vote — was inflated by fraud and that it could, in reality, have received far fewer votes. Although Putin is still likely to win a presidential election next March, the result could dent the authority of the man who has ruled with a mixture of hardline security policies, political acumen and showmanship.

Monitors led by the OSCE said the polls were slanted in favour of United Russia and marred by “frequent procedural violations” including ballot stuffing. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised “serious concerns”. Along with United Russia, three other usually pliant opposition parties won seats in the State Duma, including the Communists. However liberal party Yabloko failed to win sufficient votes for seats and another anti-Kremlin force, the Parnas party, was not even registered for the vote. According to police, 2,000 people showed up at the Moscow rally while Shorina said up to 10,000 attended the rally and 1,500-2,000 marched later towards the offices of the Central Election Commission. Police said about 100 opposition protesters were also detained in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg after they tried holding an unsanctioned rally on the main Nevsky Prospekt thoroughfare on Monday for the second day in a row. United Russia obtained 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma in Sunday’s polls, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007. Its biggest opposition will be the Communist Party with 92 seats. It was followed by the A Just Russia party with 64 seats and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 56 mandates. Turnout was just over 60 percent.

Some voters have been alienated by his suggestion that he and Medvedev, the protege he tapped as successor in 2008 after serving the limit of two consecutive terms as president, had agreed long ago that his protege would step aside next year. Putin has cultivated a tough man image with stunts such as riding a horse bare-chested, tracking tigers and flying a fighter plane. But the public appears to have wearied of the antics and his popularity, while still high, has fallen. Some fear Putin’s return to the presidency may herald economic and political stagnation. Putin has as yet no serious personal rivals as Russia’s leader. He remains the ultimate arbiter between the clans which control the world’s biggest energy producer. The other three parties on the ballot, including the liberal Yabloko, fell short of the 5 percent threshold needed to gain even token representation in the Duma. A prominent party of Kremlin foes led by Putin’s first-term prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov was barred from the ballot. Medvedev said alleged violations must be investigated but asserted that there was no major fraud. The result is a blow for Medvedev, whose legitimacy to become prime minister in the planned job swap with Putin after the presidential vote could now be in question.

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