Russia probes vote after mass protests

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Sunday ordered a probe into reports of vote-fixing after the ruling party's disputed victory sparked the largest protest rallies since the 1990s.

However, he flatly rejected the idea of staging fresh elections.

Medvedev said he had told election officials to take a closer look at reports of rampant ballot-stuffing and other allegations that officials had fixed the vote count in an election the previous weekend.

"I disagree with the slogans and declarations made at the meetings," Medvedev wrote in his Facebook account, referring to the protests Saturday across Russia that alleged widespread fraud and demanded fresh polls.

"Nevertheless, I have issued instructions to check all polling station reports about (a failure) to follow election laws," Medvedev wrote.

Saturday's demonstrations near the Kremlin saw more than 50,000 people deride the outcome of December 4 elections, which were widely seen as a litmus test for Vladimir Putin's planned return to the presidency next year.

The protests were the largest to hit the Russian capital since the tumultuous 1990s and levelled some of the most intense political pressure at Putin since he first rose to the presidency in 2000.

The former KGB agent now serves as prime minister after having made Medvedev his hand-picked presidential successor in 2008.

But despite the change of post, for many observers he has remained the country's de facto leader.

Now Putin intends to return to the Kremlin for up to 12 more years in a March election that he has appeared destined to win.

But scenes similar to those witnessed Saturday in Moscow were replayed on a smaller scale across the industrial hubs of Siberia and the Urals -- a sign that Putin's path back may be more complicated than it first appeared.

Putin stayed out of the limelight at the weekend while his spokesman issued a carefully worded statement that sounded a conciliatory note.

"We respect the point of view of the protesters," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in the overnight statement. "We are hearing what is being said and we will continue to listen to them."

Medvedev's own comments suggested the two leaders -- seen as close allies despite the president's more liberal reputation -- are keen to get on top of the most serious political challenge to Putin's 12-year rule.

But Medvedev fell far short of satisfying the opposition's main demand to stage new elections.

Former cabinet minister turned Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov dismissed Medvedev's Facebook message as "a mockery".

"These are worthless instructions ... that are not going to calm anyone down," Nemtsov told Moscow Echo radio.

Rally organisers have already threatened to return to the same Moscow square en masse on December 24 and possibly hold smaller rallies at various locations before then.

Yet analysts point to a series of small but significant changes in state policy in the past few days that hint at serious official concern about public discontent.

One of Saturday's biggest surprises came in the evening when state TV took the unusual step of leading its news broadcasts on the rallies. Until now, the stations have been scorned by the Internet community for their ban on coverage of post-election unrest.

A Kremlin source told the popular news site that it had been Medvedev's decision to run the reports.

The Kremlin source added that Medvedev had also instructed Moscow police to handle the protesters "extremely gently" after seeing more than 1,000 activists bundled away by riot police the previous week.

But dozens of people were still arrested in the regions as officials scrambled to respond to the re-emergence of political activity in cities that had stayed quiet since the early post-Soviet times.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Sunday urged Russia to continue to allow demonstrations and denounced the arrests.

"Freedom of expression must be respected in Russia," he told French broadcasters. "The multiplying arrests and detentions are not acceptable. We are calling on Russian authorities to have dialogue and to avoid violence."

The biggest regional rallies saw some 5,000 people come out in Novosibirsk -- Russia's third largest city and the heart of Siberia -- and the industrial hub of Chelyabinsk that Stalin developed in the Ural Mountains in the 1930s.

Analysts said rapid social change and the Internet's growing penetration in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off-guard after a decade in which they could mould public opinion through state-controlled media.

© 2011 AFP

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