Russia holds Putin critics, deploys troops after rally

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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 took to the streets in the capital late Monday despite freezing rain for a rally against the results of Sunday's elections in which Putin's United Russia party won but with a sharply reduced majority.

After the protest, the interior ministry sent troops into Moscow and increased the alert level of security forces in an apparent bid to ensure order was preserved amid warnings of more demonstrations.

"They (the troops) have just one aim -- to ensure the security of the citizens," interior ministry forces spokesman Colonel Vasily Panchenkov told the Interfax news agency. A police spokesman said the security forces were now on a "heightened regime" of alert.

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. Their numbers were not immedtiately clear.

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.

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.

During the rally -- called mostly through social networks whose use has boomed in Russia in recent years -- protesters chanted "Russia without Putin" and "Putin should be in prison."

Navalny has won a huge following on the Internet for exposing corruption at state-owned firms and he coined the phrase, which has now been taken up by all the opposition, "swindlers and thieves" to describe United Russia.

It was the largest protest in many years and a boost for Russia's embattled opposition which traditionally struggles to mobilise protests in a country which has lost its taste for street politics in the turbulent 90s.

Putin suffered his worst ever setback at the ballot box on Sunday as United Russia's majority in the State Duma was sharply reduced.

The opposition claimed the results would have been even more dramatic in clean elections.

Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the Kremlin administration described as the architect of Russia's current political system, admitted the country required reform to ensure its future stability.

"The period of sanitising and revitalising a political system that decomposed in the 90s is over," he said in comments to writer Sergei Minayev and posted on LiveJournal, one of Russia's most popular blogging sites, Monday night.

"An open system is more turbulent but also more stable no matter how paradoxical this is. And we are in favour of stability, right?"

United Russia obtained 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma in Sunday's polls, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007.

It 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.

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".

Along with United Russia, three other usually pliant opposition parties won seats in the State Duma, including the Communists. However liberal party Yabloko failed to win sufficient votes for seats and another anti-Kremlin force, the Parnas party, was not even registered for the vote.

United Russia's biggest opposition will be the Communist Party with 92 seats. It was followed by the A Just Russia party with 64 seats and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 56 mandates. Turnout was just over 60 percent.

The opposition said that the authorities had used unprecedented dirty tricks to keep the ruling party's dominance in the State Duma despite falling support.

The website of the independent monitor group Golos, which exposed violations in the campaign, was down after a week of harassing of its leaders by the authorities.

© 2011 AFP

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