Russia opposition to stage new mass protest

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Russia's opposition is to stage new nationwide demonstrations Saturday expected to attract tens of thousands of people to protest alleged rigging in this month's parliamentary elections.

Incensed by claims of wholesale violations in the December 4 parliamentary polls that handed a reduced majority to Vladimir Putin's ruling party, tens of thousands of people already took to the streets across Russia on December 10.

Those protests were the biggest show of public anger in Russia since the chaotic 1990s.

A coalition of opposition forces, encouraged by that success, are seeking to drum up support for a new rally on Sakharov Avenue in Moscow, with nearly 40,000 people vowing on Facebook to attend.

Other protests are expected elsewhere in Russia.

The demonstrations come after President Dmitry Medvedev Thursday proposed a "comprehensive reform of our political system" including the resumption of direct elections for governors and a simplified procedure to register political parties.

His proposals -- first floated by strongman premier Putin last week -- appeared an attempt by the authorities to show the protestors that the authorities had heard their message.

But protest leaders dismissed the two men's promises as half-hearted concessions and stressed the government has ignored the protesters' demands to annul the ballot results, sack election commission chief Vladimir Churov, and hold a new vote.

In defiance of the protests, the newly elected lower house of parliament, the State Duma, held its first session on Wednesday.

"People are demanding the punishment of the guilty, the sacking of Churov," top opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov told AFP. "People do not want to live with the fraudulent Duma for the next five years."

Ruling party United Russia won less than half the vote in the elections and lost 77 seats as fatigue sets in with the 12-year rule of Putin, who is planning to win his old Kremlin job back in March polls and could stay in power until 2024.

The opposition says the party's performance would have been even worse in free elections.

Some had thought the protest movement would fizzle out once the initial anger subsides and as Russia heads into the ten-day-long New Year's holidays.

But after Putin insulted protesters, comparing their rallies to an anti-AIDS campaign and the white ribbons many pinned to their lapels to condoms, many said they would attend Saturday's rally.

The release from prison this week of charismatic anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny and another prominent activist Ilya Yashin, who were handed 15-day sentences after leading one of the earlier rallies, are likely to give an additional boost the protesters.

Putin has dismissed the rallies as insignificant, charging that their leaders were in the pay of the US State Department, while Medvedev said Thursday that authorities would not allow "provocateurs and extremists to drag society into their schemes."

Dozens of prominent cultural figures including film director Valery Todorovsky and musician Alexei Kortnev publicly urged ordinary Russians to come to the protest, which is officially sanctioned by the authorities.

"If we want to change something there should be many of us," they said in an open letter.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has called for the elections to be re-run, may also attend the protest. "It's quite possible," his spokesman Vladimir Polyakov told AFP. "He had that desire but, of course, you need to remember he's 80."

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who this month announced he would challenge Putin for the presidency, said he may also come.

© 2011 AFP

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