Russian vote gives Putin foes a common cause
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Anger over Russia's parliamentary election has given Vladimir Putin's diverse enemies common cause and drawn thousands of people, many of them first-time protesters, to some of the biggest opposition rallies in years.
Twenty-four hours after polls closed in what the ruling party's rivals called post-Soviet Russia's dirtiest vote, some 5,000 people packed a boulevard in central Moscow, denouncing the election as a fraud and chanting, "Putin -- out!"
Was it the first sign of a powerful opposition push that could threaten Putin as he prepares to return to the presidency, or an isolated outburst of anger at the entrenched ruling party and its leader?
The size of the protest on Monday, unexpected even by its organizers, underscored increasing fatigue with Putin's United Russia party and frustration with the political system he has put in place over 12 years in power.
At its core were several longtime opposition leaders with views and agendas that do not always overlap.
Among them was Boris Nemtsov, a liberal former cabinet minister who has been shut out of electoral politics during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency and has become one of his fiercest critics.
Another, Ilya Yashin, is a scrappy street politician who has faced off against pro-Kremlin government goons.
Yevgeniya Chirikova is an ardent environmental activist who galvanised anti-government sentiment last year with a failed fight against a highway cutting through a forest near Moscow.
Alexei Navalny, a nationalist, is also a crusading blogger who has challenged some of Russia's biggest companies with corruption allegations and popularized a phrase dismissing United Russia as the "party of swindlers and thieves."
For them, the rally was a matter of course, and facing up to a line of police with elbows locked was nothing new.
The election could unite a splintered street protest movement that was losing steam, with frequent demonstrations ahead of the vote drawing no more than a few hundred people and sometimes almost none at all.
It has also sharpened the focus of frustration many Russians feel with a system of politics and government which they fear they have little power to change.
Many people who joined the demonstration were first-time protesters, in many cases young and in some with little apparent interest in politics.
"I went to the protest yesterday and I thought none of my friends would go, but it turned out that 10 of my friends heard from different sources and came," said Mitya, a Moscow State University student standing vigil on Tuesday outside the police station where Navalny, detained at he protested, was being held.
"These are new people coming out," said activist Roman Udot, contrasting Monday's protests to nearly monthly rallies that Kremlin opponents have held over the past two years to demand freedom of assembly.
"When we managed to get 1,000 people together we thought that was success," said Udot.
Instead of passing by the protest, a number of young couples and other pedestrians nearby stopped to watch and then joined in the clapping and chanting.
"It was spontaneous, but it reflected the public mood -- that everyone is tired of everything," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.
He said his 22-year-old son had not protested but was surprised that "very many of his friends were there -- people who never went to anything like this before."
Putin is still Russia's most popular politician, but his approval ratings have fallen amid signs some Russians are tiring of his of his dominance and his image-building stunts. He was booed at a recent sports event.
"They chanted not against United Russia but against Putin," Malashenko said of the protest. "It's a lack of trust not in some party, but in a person who wants to be the chief."
Some analysts say the protest could be a marker on the path towards the downfall of Putin, who could be president until 2024 if he wins a Mach vote and a second term six years later.
Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker with the rival Just Russia party, suggested Putin had courted unrest by squeezing opponents to the political margins and would face growing wrath after an election many Russians believe was rigged.
"The authorities have very deeply falsified the election and got a protest in return -- and it is going to grow," he said.
"I predicted long ago that if there is no civilized way to change those in power, this process could take to the streets."
Opposition leaders are eager to take advantage of the protest mood, which was starkly evident even in the official results of the election.
United Russia received about 49 percent of the votes, down from 64 percent in the 2007 election and enough for only a slim majority in the State Duma lower parliament house.
"World experience shows that the change and the breakdown of a regime happen through massive protests during elections or are inspired by the consequences of elections," said Alexander Averin, a member of opposition group Other Russia.
"People have gone into the street and we see it's successful -- the authorities fear it and we need to continue," he said.
Hundreds of Kremlin opponents did just that on Tuesday evening, trying to rally on a square off Moscow's main street. But they did not match the numbers of Monday's rally, and they ran into an array of tactics the Kremlin uses to dissuade people from demonstrating and to quash protests.
Hours after Putin's spokesman warned against unapproved demonstrations, police mounted a big presence and moved swiftly to detain protesters, who also faced harassment by hundreds of pro-Kremlin youth group members who thronged the same square. Police said 250 protesters were detained.
The display of force pointed up the hurdles faced by his opponents, and Malashenko said the big turnout "does not mean that tomorrow everyone will go protest."
"This should not be exaggerated -- it is very interesting and important that it happened, but it could be an exception."
Even if the protests fizzle, Putin is in a predicament that many warn will grow worse if he cannot find a way to curb the frustration Russian vented at the polls and in the protests.
"The most important thing is how long this mood persists, and whether Putin can weaken it," Malashenko said. "How he can do that I do not know."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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