Putin ally heads Russia parliament despite rallies

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Russia's lower house of parliament on Wednesday elected a close ally of Vladimir Putin as its new speaker, in defiance of mass protests sparked by opposition claims it was elected in rigged polls.

The State Duma voted in the candidate of Putin's ruling party, the former Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin, as its president in its first session of the new parliament.

However after United Russia won less than half the vote in December 4 parliamentary elections and lost 77 seats, while still retaining its majority, the Duma is expected to be somewhat less pliant than in previous years, when it served as a mere rubber stamp for the Kremlin.

The mild-mannered Naryshkin, who like Putin hails from Saint Petersburg, pledged the Duma would operate through consensus as he faced a barrage of questions from an opposition emboldened by its electoral success.

"I would like to stress: a parliamentary majority is by no means a monopoly," Naryshkin said. "I am in favour of parliamentary debate."

His predecessor, the dour-faced United Russia chairman Boris Gryzlov, who quit the post earlier this month following the mass rallies, was once notoriously quoted as saying that "the Duma is not a place for discussion."

A total of 238 parliament members supported Naryshkin's candidacy in the Duma, where United Russia has 238 out of 450 seats. Eighty-eight voted against him.

Claims of vote fraud in the polls brought tens of thousands out into the streets across Russia earlier this month in the largest show of public anger since the turbulent 1990s.

"Of course, people take to the streets for different reasons. Indeed, we have problems," Naryshkin said.

Scores of parliament members took to the floor, denouncing the dominance of the ruling party and making frequent references to the mass protests that shook Russia after the vote.

"People are demanding freedom and expansion of democracy," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party known for his bombastic style, said.

The liberal Yabloko party did not poll enough votes to make it into parliament, while the fiercely anti-Kremlin unregistered Parnas party could not take part in the polls in the first place.

Putin and incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev did not attend the session, even though United Russia said it had sent them a formal invitation.

Naryshkin's official biography says he served on the staff of an economic councillor of the Soviet embassy in Belgium in the early 1980s and there has long been speculation he has a KGB background.

He worked in the government of the Leningrad region in the 1990s before taking up a Kremlin administration post in Moscow in 2004. He served as Kremlin chief of staff between 2008 and December 2011.

The opening of parliament came as Russia freed anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition activists after they served 15-day jail terms for taking part in an unsanctioned rally protesting the election results.

Opposition activists, encouraged by the success of those rallies, are seeking to drum up support for a new rally on Saturday, and more than 30,000 people have said on Facebook they will attend.

Putin, who is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his 12-year rule, is seeking to win back his old Kremlin job in March presidential elections, in a swap with Medvedev that has annoyed many Russians.

The Kremlin, seeking to deliver on its promises to look into reports of wholesale violations, said on Wednesday that it had received interim results of a probe from the interior ministry and investigators.

It said the largest amount of campaign violations were recorded in Moscow, putting the figure at 462.

The Kremlin statement appeared to play down the scale of fraud however, saying authorities were conducting five probes into ballot stuffing in Moscow and several other regions.

© 2011 AFP

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