Nationwide vote protests test Putin dominance

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National protests rolled from Russia's Far East to Moscow on Saturday as furious voters demanded the annulment of disputed elections in the biggest challenge yet to strongman Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.

The biggest rallies to hit Russia since the turbulent 1990s kicked off in the struggling Pacific port of Vladivostok, where 500 people braved a deep winter freeze and a heavy police presence to demand "jail for those who rigged the vote."

"Annul the election results," came the chant from others, some wearing white ribbons that have come to symbolise the opposition's frustration with the December 4 parliamentary elections that handed a narrow victory to Putin's United Russia party.

Around 20 people were detained in the hub city of Khabarovsk close to China's eastern border, where a few dozen people came out on Lenin Square in breach of police orders for people to stay off the streets, RIA Novosti reported.

Organisers said a much bigger rally of 3,500 people was held in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk while 1,500 had gathered in Tomsk -- a city famed for discontent since tsarist times and one where Putin's party suffered a drubbing.

Rallies under the slogan of "Russia without Putin" and "For fair elections" also took place across the Ural and Volga regions, while more than 50,000 riot police and troops were deployed on the squares and metro stations of Moscow.

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.

Moscow authorities gave permission for 30,000 people to gather on a square across the river from the Kremlin at 2:00 pm (1000 GMT) after detaining some 1,600 activists who joined unsanctioned rallies against last weekend's vote.

A demonstration of that size would be the largest to hit Moscow in more than a decade and ring what some see as the first warning bell for the ex-foreign agent and his secretive inner circle of security chiefs.

Putin's United Russia -- 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 remained Russia's most popular and powerful politician as both 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

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