Nationwide vote protests hit Putin's rule
Tens of thousands of election protesters turned out Saturday in Moscow and other major cities across Russia in open defiance to strongman Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.
Hundreds of security trucks blocked off central squares while helicopters patrolled the skies as Moscow police deployed more than 50,000 riot police and troops on the biggest day of protest to hit Russia since the turbulent 1990s.
Protesters braved a snow storm to snake their way through tight police cordons and across the Moscow River to a secluded square not far from the Kremlin assigned by the authorities for the "For Fair Elections" protest.
"The current regime does not know how to behave with dignity," former cabinet member turned Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov said as the crowd gathered for the biggest Moscow opposition rally of the Putin era.
"All they know is cynicism," Nemtsov said in reference to a December 4 poll that handed Putin's United Russia party a slim victory amid widespread reports of fraud and strong concern from both the European Union and Washington.
Police reported up to 20,000 converging on the square 30 minutes into the sanctioned event while one organiser put the figure at 40,000.
The rolling rallies kicked off in Far Eastern hubs such as Khabarovsk where more than 50 people were detained during an unsanctioned rally attended by some 400 people amid -15 degree Celsius (five degrees Fahrenheit) chills.
Hundreds called on the authorities to "annul the election results" in the Pacific port of Vladivostok while rallies under the slogan of "Russia without Putin" spread across the Ural and Volga regions.
Moscow protesters -- organised primarily through social network sites -- had permission for 30,000 people to hold a rally on the Bolotnaya square across the river from the Kremlin after detaining some 1,600 activists during the week.
Hundreds of interior ministry trucks and buses sat parked across the centre of the capital while helicopters patrolled the skies and the police blocked the entrance to Red Square with trucks.
The demonstrations were the biggest to hit Moscow in more than a decade and rang what some saw as the first warning bell for ex-foreign agent Putin and his secretive inner circle of security chiefs.
Putin's party -- bruised by corruption allegations and comparisons to the Soviet-era Communist Party -- lost its grip on parliament while keeping a slim majority that its foes claim was exaggerated by a corrupt vote count.
Their complaints were supported by a flood of video footage shot by ordinary Russians and posted on the Internet appearing to show ballot stuffing and other widespread manipulation.
The poll was seen as a litmus test of Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin in the March presidential ballot and appeared to expose a chink in his armour after more than a decade of dominant rule.
Putin accepted the vote's outcome and stayed silent about the protests for three days before accusing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the unrest by questioning the elections.
He said Clinton's criticism "had set the tone for some people inside the country and given a signal." US State Department spokesman Mark Toner retorted that "nothing could be further from the truth."
Putin has been Russia's most popular and powerful politician as president until 2008 followed by prime minister up to the present -- an image he cultivated with tough talk against foreign powers and warm words for the Soviet past.
But analysts say rapid social changes and the Internet's first significant gains in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard amid signs that Putin's likely return to head of state is less welcome than originally thought.
A running public opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre show Putin's ratings taking a dive immediately after his planned return to the Kremlin was announced on September 24.
Analysts believe that Putin now has the choice of either embracing reform or tightening state control to preserve his dominance.
Putin's tirade against the United States would initially suggest the latter. But other signs are less clear.
The authorities' decision to largely permit Saturday's rallies to go ahead nationwide is a first for the Putin era and suggests the Kremlin would prefer to avoid street battles between protesters and the riot police.
But prosecutors have also launched a probe into a popular Russian social network that is being used by the opposition to organise its protests.
© 2011 AFP