Putin critics plan new protests despite arrests
The Russian opposition defiantly vowed to wage a sustained campaign of protests on Tuesday after police detained hundreds in rallies against Vladimir Putin's crushing victory in presidential polls.
Protest leaders were holding talks with the Moscow authorities to agree a venue for a mass protest on Saturday expected to draw tens of thousands of people to keep up pressure on Putin ahead of his return to the Kremlin.
The protest on Monday night one day after the elections descended into chaos and violence when police moved in to roughly arrest a hard core of protestors who had refused to leave a square in central Moscow.
Police said they arrested 620 people in Moscow and at a similar event in Saint Petersburg. Those detained in the capital included the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny — the protests movement’s current figurehead.
All have now been released after spending at most a night in jail, police said, but several have been called before courts for hearings later this month that could see them given 15-day jail terms.
In Russia’s second city Saint Petersburg, activists threatened to stage unsanctioned demonstrations outside its famed Saint Isaac’s Cathedral on Tuesday and Wednesday, while Navalny vowed to wage a non-stop campaign of civil disobedience.
“Tens of thousands will be coming out on the streets of Moscow and other cities and refusing to leave,” Navalny told reporters after spending most of Monday night in detention. “We will keep doing this until our demands are met.”
The spectre of unrest overshadowed what was meant to be Putin’s triumphant return to a post he held in 2000-2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister. He is due to be sworn in at the Kremlin on May 7.
But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told ITAR-TASS that police displayed the “highest professionalism” and behaved in a “legitimate and effective manner” at the high-profile Moscow event.
Putin won Sunday’s election with 63.6 percent of the vote and will serve for a six-year term that may theoretically be extended through 2024 — a stretch making him Moscow’s longest-serving ruler since Stalin.
However, European monitors have raised concerns and the opposition — its leaders excluded from both the polls and most access to state media — have vowed to make protests a permanent feature of the Russian strongman’s new presidency.
At the next big Moscow protest set for Saturday the organisers hope to lead tens of thousands on a march along the central Novy Arbat Avenue. The city has offered a more remote location and no final venue has yet been agreed.
“The awakening of society,” the Vedomosti daily said in an editorial about the difficulties Putin faces on his Kremlin comeback.
“The possible return of Putin for two more terms has brought on fears of stagnation and despair,” it said.
But some have expressed fears that the rallies may be losing the ironic edge that kept them popular with crowds of all ages and were now turning more urgent and volatile as the reality of Putin’s new term sets in.
Putin earned both restrained criticism for the election’s conduct and muted congratulations from world leaders on his return.
European observers led by the OSCE said better election transparency was eclipsed by the fact that “conditions were clearly skewed in favour of” Russia’s current premier.
The US State Department urged Russia to conduct “an independent, credible investigation” into the reported abuses while noting that monitors also found Putin to be the “clear winner”.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin in a telephone conversation that he “looked forward to working” with him and French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his best wishes.
Monday’s event in Moscow also featured the first speaking appearance by tycoon and third-place election candidate Mikhail Prokhorov — an independent who has vowed to build his own party after winning almost 8.0 percent of the vote.
“I am certain that the use of force and detention of opposition politicians could have been avoided,” Prokhorov wrote on his Twitter Tuesday.