Prime Minister Vladimir Putin faced the biggest protests in his 12 years in power as Russians rallied across the country against election fraud.
Twenty-five thousand people gathered in the center of Moscow yesterday in near-freezing temperatures and dispersed after 6 p.m. without detentions or violence, police said. Several thousand demonstrated in St. Petersburg and more than 15,000 in about 30 other cities across the world’s biggest country by area, RIA Novosti reported.
The swelling resentment threatens to weaken Putin’s bid to return to the Kremlin in a presidential contest in March, which may allow him to have almost a quarter-century in power. His United Russia party retained a narrow majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, amid accusations of vote rigging in the Dec. 4 parliamentary ballot.
“We are for free elections, we are for democracy,” Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma lawmaker and one of the protest organizers, told the crowd in Bolotnaya Square, on an island just south of the Kremlin. “We want a recount of the vote.”
As many as 150,000 people turned out for the biggest rally in the capital in two decades, said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former lawmaker. The organizers are planning to stage protests the next two weekends and will apply for a permit to hold a rally with 500,000 protesters on Sakharov Prospekt, he said.
‘Russia Without Putin’
Organizers handed out white ribbons to participants, a color that has started to become a symbol of the protests. People at the square chanted: “Russia without Putin!”
Putin, 59, announced in September he plans to return as president next year. The Russian leader, who in 2008 handed over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms, has seen his popularity fall amid voter discontent at stalling wage growth and corruption.
“I wanted Medvedev to run again as president instead of Putin, but he turned out to be an actor in a puppet show,” Katya, 24, a dental technician, said while eating french fries at a diner on the west side of the square. She declined to give her surname, saying her father is a government official and a United Russia member.
Vladivostok, St. Petersburg
Protests began in Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, spreading west through Siberian cities such as Ulan Ude and Omsk, before starting in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other European Russian cities, RIA Novosti reported. Police detained dozens of people at unsanctioned rallies, the state news service said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the continent’s democracy watchdog, the U.S., Germany and the European Union criticized violations during the Dec. 4 vote.
Putin said Dec. 8 that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks of the vote emboldened protesters. Clinton mentioned publicly the OSCE’s criticism that the election was marred by fraud. The comments “sent a signal” to activists, Putin said on Dec. 8.
“We respect the point of view of the protesters,” Dmitry Peskov, the premier’s spokesman, said in a e-mailed statement today. “We are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them. The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner.”
Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Duma’s foreign- affairs committee, accused unnamed foreign powers of seeking to destabilize Russia.
“What’s happening now was planned long before the elections, irrespective of the outcome, to discredit them,” Kosachyov said in a phone interview yesterday. “The aim is to place in doubt the legitimacy of the Russian leadership. It’s a geopolitical game.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Putin’s mistake was to overestimate his voter appeal.
“He basically thought he was permanently popular,” Albright said at a panel discussion Dec. 9 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The problems are domestic.”
A map on Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, showed the locations of planned protests in almost 100 cities around the country, with links to pages on social networking site Vkontakte for details of each event.
Russia’s credit risk rose the most among emerging markets since protests started, while the ruble weakened for seven days.
“The market is only now starting to price in the return of top-level political risk for the first time in 12 years,” Kingsmill Bond and Andrey Kuznetsov, analysts at Citigroup Inc. in Moscow, wrote Dec. 9 in an e-mailed note. “We are likely to see continued downward pressure on the market as those investors not prepared for this or not willing to stomach the risk, exit the market.”
United Russia lost the two-thirds majority that had given it the power to alter the constitution unilaterally, winning 238 seats in the election for the 450-member Duma, the Central Elections Commission said. The Communists got 92 seats, Just Russia won 64 and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party 56 seats.
The Communists denounced the vote as “illegitimate,” without endorsing demands for a re-run by the organizers of most of yesterday’s rallies, the Solidarity movement, an umbrella opposition group. Just Russia will seek a vote recount in a number of regions, lawmaker Gennady Gudkov said.
The ruling party benefited from uneven access to state resources and the media before the vote, the OSCE said Dec. 5. Election observers also saw evidence of ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities at the polls, it said.
In Moscow, Europe’s largest city, the official results gave United Russia more than 46 percent of the vote, compared with 27.5 percent in an exit poll by the Public Opinion Foundation. The Russian capital has a population of 11.5 million, according to last year’s census.
Medvedev’s human-rights council said it was “extremely concerned” about fraud complaints about the parliamentary poll and the vote should be repeated if the violations were serious enough to alter the results, according to a statement on the panel’s website.
Thousands of people took to Moscow’s streets in the days after the vote to protest against the election results and police detained several hundred people.
That action “was spontaneous, with much fewer people,” said Yekaterina Goncharenko, who stood holding white flowers on Bolotnaya Square yesterday. “Now it is much more peaceful.”
While the demonstrations are “clearly” the biggest ever against Putin, they are “nowhere near” the size of rallies that toppled governments in the Middle East this year, Neil Shearing, senior emerging-market analyst at Capital Economics in London, said Dec. 8 in a telephone interview.
“I don’t think we will see anything like the Arab spring,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow. “No one is in a rush to run into machine-gun fire.”
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