Russia deploys troops after anti-Putin rally
Russia deployed troops in central Moscow and held opposition figures on Tuesday after an unprecedented protest against polls that critics said were rigged in favour of Vladimir Putin's party.
Several thousand people followed a call on social networking sites for a rally late Monday in Moscow against the results of weekend elections which Putin's United Russia party won but with a sharply reduced majority.
With the opposition warning of further demonstrations in the days to come, the interior ministry sent troops into the capital and increased the alert level of security forces in an apparent bid to ensure order.
"There will be as many (troops) as required," interior ministry spokesman Oleg Yelnikov told AFP
He said the security forces would be on a "heightened regime" of alert until all the votes are counted, adding that some 11,500 interior ministry troops would ensure order across the country.
A Moscow police spokesman separately told AFP that up to 4,000 police and Interior Ministry troops would be deployed to ensure order during several planned rallies in the Russian capital on Tuesday.
Under the slogan "We are Against United Russia!", bloggers were already calling for a new rally later Tuesday on the Russian social networking site VKontakte. "We will make it hot for the thieving authorities," their page promised.
Protesters had chanted "Russia without Putin" and "Putin should be in prison" in the rally on Monday, the largest protest in many years in the Russian capital.
Throughout the morning, Russian bloggers posted videos and claimed they saw columns of armoured vans carrying the troops heading down the main avenues into the city.
An AFP correspondent saw around 20 vehicles and 15 buses, some empty, some filled with police in central Moscow on Tuesday afternoon.
Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of liberal party Yabloko which polled just over 3 percent of the vote and did not get into parliament, said the authorities were showing they were ready to use force against protesters.
"These are the first signs of the agony, and this agony may end up being very unpleasant for the country and society," he told AFP.
Moscow police warned they would prevent any unsanctioned protests in the Russian capital and participants would be arrested.
"Any provocations will be prevented in strict accordance with the law," a police spokesman said in a statement to Russian news agencies. "Those who try to stage any unsanctioned event understand perfectly well that they will be detained."
Pro-Kremlin youth organisation Nashi was set to stage a mass rally attracting thousands of supporters banging drums near the Kremlin walls to show their backing for United Russia.
The opposition said that the authorities had used unprecedented dirty tricks to keep the ruling party's dominance in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, despite falling support.
Top Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov admitted there had been some violations during the vote but insisted they were not on an "industrial scale."
"Stop wailing, I am sick of you," he said in comments posted on LiveJournal, one of Russia's most popular blogging sites.
The vote represented Putin's worst setback during his 11-year career as president and prime minister. But the opposition claimed the results would have been even more dramatic in clean elections.
"This is Putin's biggest defeat, people don't trust him anymore," said Boris Nemtsov, an ex-minister turned top Putin critic. "People are undergoing irreversible changes in their minds. People's patience is running thin."
The ruling party polled less than 50 percent of the vote, down from over 64 percent in 2007, which translates into the loss of 13 million votes, according to estimates.
Police said they arrested 300 people including prominent activist Ilya Yashin and opposition blogger Alexei Navalny in the protest Monday when participants headed towards the Lubyanka Square that houses the feared FSB security service.
A Moscow court on Tuesday found Yashin guilty of disobeying police orders and handed him a 15-day jail sentence.
Around 250 were still detained by Tuesday afternoon, Olga Shorina, spokeswoman for Solidarnost (Solidarity) movement that organised the protest, told AFP. Many now face 15 days of arrest, she said.
United Russia obtained 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma polls, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007. United Russia's biggest opposition will be the Communist Party with 92 seats.
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".
© 2011 AFP