The day after a presidential election in which Vladimir V. Putin claimed victory but which international observers are questioning on charges of fraud, an estimated 20,000 Russians assembled in Moskow’s Pushkin Square and in St. Petersburg in protest. The Guardian reports that hundreds were arrested including opposition leaders Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov. Thousands of riot police had been sent to Moskow before and after the elections whose results mean that Putin will now serve a third six-year term as Russia’s leader.
Reports of helmeted officers violently detaining protesters led to Russia’s foreign ministry writing to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, to criticize the brutal treatment of Occupy protesters by the New York City Police Department. Putin himself has been fond of making “snide remarks about western hypocrisy and double standards” and both the European Union and the U.S. said that they are “ready to work” with Putin in his “new role” while only calling for an “independent, credible” investigation of allegations of fraud.
In contrast, international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe charged that Putin had not faced any real competition and had been able to draw on plentiful amounts of government funds in campaigning. Putin officially won 63.6 percent of the presidential vote, or 45.5 million votes. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was his closet rival, winning 17.2 percent of the vote, or 12.3 million votes. As Tonino Picula, a former minister of foreign affairs from Croatia and the leader of the group of observers, said,
“The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.”
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also questioned the results of the election and, in reference to the anti-government protesters, said that he was “surprised” that Putin had referred to some “citizens as enemies.” Putin had at first referred to the protesters “as the paid agents of foreign powers and used references to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to suggest opponents were chattering monkeys,” says Reuters. Gorbachev, himself the father of “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) who became “reviled” by Russians after his reforms led to the fall of the Soviet Union, has called for fresh elections and a limit of two presidential terms per person.
Putin had been deeply shaken when his United Russia Party fared poorly in parliamentary elections in December. Massive antigovernment protests also began then and, says the New York Times, had a part in the Kremlin making sure that Putin’s presidential victory would be considered legitimate; transparent ballot boxes were used and 180,000 Web cameras installed at polling stations. But protesters, many of them young Russians, have still rejected the results and gathered while chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief.” Activist Navalny, who said he was not concerned that he was arrested, said simply that the election was “a procedure and not really an election.”
Another activist, novelist Boris Akunin, commented that “It is absolutely certain that the period of peaceful protests and marches is over”; future protests will lead to “a clear manifestation of aggression from the authorities,” he added according to the Guardian, all in a sign of the “nervousness” of the regime. Prior to Monday, police had arrested other activists including six members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot on charges of ”gross violation of the public order and religious hatred” after the group’s unsanctioned performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin, are still in custody and have started a hunger strike; they could face up to seven years imprisonment if charges of hooliganism are brought against them.
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