'Putin is a thief' cry Russians as inspectors attack vote

Protesters arrested as problems emerge with landslide win

Shaun Walker
Tuesday 06 March 2012 01:00 GMT

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A day after Vladimir Putin won a return to the Kremlin for six years, thousands of Russians took to a central Moscow square last night to decry Vladimir Putin's reelection as illegitimate, while the only international observer body monitoring the elections said that there were "serious problems" with the vote.

Mr Putin's supporters waved Russian flags and danced outside the Kremlin for a second evening but 10 minutes' walk away at Pushkin Square, the anti-Putin opposition gathered around 20,000 Muscovites who chanted "Putin is a thief" and "Russia will be free". Some stayed behind afterwards, and police arrested over 200 people at the square, including the protest leader Alexei Navalny.

Central Moscow felt like a city under siege, as riot police poured out from rows of dozens of army trucks parked in neat rows outside the Bolshoi Theatre and at other locations in the historical centre. There were armoured vehicles, radio trucks and even a camouflaged field kitchen, all to ensure that radical elements of the opposition did not attempt to march on the Kremlin.

Although the police estimated the crowd at 14,000, organisers said it was much higher. Either way, it was less than the roughly 100,000 people who came out to the biggest protest in the aftermath of parliamentary elections, but this was also the first protest to be held on a working day.

With almost all the votes counted by yesterday evening, Mr Putin had won nearly 64 per cent, and his supporters say his winning margin was unquestionable. But an observer mission from the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there were irregularities with the count at almost one third of the polling stations under observation, while the US State Department called on Russia to investigate allegations of fraud.

Golos, Russia's only independent election monitoring watchdog, said that based on its reports from monitors, Mr Putin's result was very close to the 50 per cent margin required to avoid a second-round runoff. Vladimir Churov, the head of Russia's Central Election Committee, who became something a hate figure for the opposition after parliamentary elections in December, rebuffed all such criticism yesterday. He said that many foreign election observers were actually spies in disguise, and that Russia had the fairest and most honest elections of any country in the world.

In Moscow, the hub of protests by the new Russian middle class, Mr Putin only received around 48 per cent of the vote, with the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov taking second place with nearly 20 per cent (nationally he polled just 8 per cent). The chief of Mr Prokhorov's campaign team said yesterday he was planning to emigrate in disgust at how the vote had gone, while the oligarch himself put in an appearance at the opposition rally, promising to set up a new political party that would meet the demands of angry Muscovites.

Mr Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who has become one of the leaders of the protest movement, addressed the crowd in typical tub-thumping fashion, and drew the biggest cheer of the evening. He referred to the Russian elite as being "sick with bulimia", saying that those in charge of Russia have "eaten all the oil, they've eaten all the gas, and they are still hungry for more". He later led the crowd in a chant of "Putin is a thief", as riot police surrounded Pushkin Square from all sides and a police helicopter hovered overhead.

After the rally, Mr Navalny and some of the other leaders said they planned to remain on the square until Mr Putin leaves office, setting up a tent camp if necessary. Within an hour, the riot police moved in to detain them, with squadrons of police chasing groups of protesters through the streets and detaining those who refused to disperse. Alyona Popova, an opposition politician, said her arm had been broken in the melee. Around 300 people were also arrested in St Petersburg. Mr Navalny was released shortly after midnight, and on the steps of the police station promised that he would continue the protest movement "until the end".

Numbers game: percentages from the Russian election

64: Official percentage of vote won by Vladimir Putin

50: Putin's share according to watchdog, Golos

48.7: Putin's percentage in Moscow – the only electoral district where he failed to achieve an absolute majority

17: Share of vote for second-placed Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader

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