Russian Police Arrest Anti-Putin Protesters

Posted March 5th, 2012 at 8:00 pm (UTC-5)
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Russian police have detained hundreds of people, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, at rallies disputing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's landslide victory in Sunday's presidential election.

More than 20,000 Russians turned out Monday in central Moscow's Pushkin Square. Some chanted, “Russia without Putin,” while others shouted, “Power to millions, not to the police.” Riot police quickly dispersed the crowd.

Closer to the Kremlin, thousands of Mr. Putin's supporters staged rallies of their own, waving Russian flags and chanting the president-elect's name.

Navalny, who posted on Twitter, “Hello everyone, from the police van,” was later released from police custody.

Greeted by a crowd of supporters, the defiant opposition leader vowed to continue with the street protests.

“What happened today, this experiment of (opposition leader Sergei) Udaltsov who tried to set up a tent camp, shows straight away that there are already hundreds of people who will stay until the very end. We will certainly stage mass protests, and thousands, tens of thousands people will come to the streets of Moscow and other cities and will refuse to leave. We will definitely do this, and we will be doing that until we win and achieve what we want.''

In St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, police broke up an unsanctioned opposition protest, detaining at least 100 demonstrators in a similarly rough manner.

International observers said the election was clearly skewed in Mr. Putin's favor. A statement from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there was no real competition and voters had a limited choice of candidates because of overly restrictive registration requirements. It said abuse of government resources ensured that the winner was never in doubt. The observers also reported voting irregularities at one-third of the polling stations.

Preliminary results give Mr. Putin 64 percent of the vote and his closest rival, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov, 17 percent. Three other candidates won less than 10 percent of the vote.

World leaders acknowledged Mr. Putin's victory with reservations. European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton urged the Russian leaders to address the “shortcomings” identified by international observers.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. State Department congratulated the Russian people on the completion of the presidential poll and said it looked forward to working with the president-elect after the results are certified and he is sworn in. But the statement also urged Moscow to launch an “independent and credible” investigation of all reported electoral violations.

At a rally late Sunday, a tearful Mr. Putin told his supporters that he won an “open and honest struggle.” But independent watchdog agency Golos said it has registered more than 3,000 reports of irregularities, including so-called “carousel voting,” a practice in which busloads of voters are taken from one polling place to another to cast ballots.

Communist Party candidate Zyuganov denounced Sunday's election as “illegitimate, unfair and not transparent.” Others complained of doctored voting lists and said pro-Kremlin business leaders installed voting booths in factories and pressured workers to vote for Mr. Putin.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet-era leader, told the Interfax news agency he doubts the results reflect the true will of Russians. He said the challenge now is to change the country's election system to make voting fair, and to restore the direct election of governors.