Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day of protest against vote fraud begins in Russia

Russians angered by allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections and the country's ruling party took part in protests Saturday in cities from the freezing Pacific Coast to the southwest, eight time zones away — a striking show of indignation that poses a challenge to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hold on power.
Protests took place in at least 15 cities, most them attracting crowds of several hundred to a thousand. And the day's centerpiece was yet to take place — a massive rally in Moscow that was expected to gather more than 30,000 people.
The protesters are both angered by reports of flagrant vote fraud in the Dec. 4 election and energized by the sense that the elections showed Putin and his United Russia party to be newly vulnerable. The party held an overwhelming two-thirds of the seats in the previous parliament, but its share plunged by about 20 percent in the recent vote.
That result was a significant loss of face for the party that has dominated Russian politics, and protesters say that even its reduced performance was inflated by ballot-box stuffing.
"The falsifications that authorities are doing today have turned the country into a big theater, with clowns like in a circus," said Alexander Trofimov, one of the early arrivals for the protest at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River adjacent to the Kremlin.
Others say the elections were just the catalyst for them to show their anger over many issues.
"I don't think any citizen of the country can say he is very happy with anything. We don't have an independent judiciary, there is no freedom of expression — all this combined creates a situation where people are forced to protest," said demonstrator Albert Yusupov, who was in civilian clothes but identified himself as a member of the Russian army.
Thousands of miles (kilometers) away, in the city of Vladivostok, several hundred protesters rallied along a waterside avenue where some of Russia's Pacific Fleet warships are docked. They shouted "Putin's a louse" and some held a banner caricaturing United Russia's emblem, reading "The rats must go."
Police stayed on the fringes of that demonstration and made no arrests. But the Interfax news agency reported that about 15 people were arrested at a protest in the Siberian city of Perm and about 30 in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk when a flash-mob started an unauthorized protest.
Officials in many cities, including Moscow, gave permission for the protests, an unusual largesse in a country where opposition rallies are frequently banned or limited to small attendance.
But in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent young people from attending the protest, Moscow's school system declared Saturday afternoon an extra school day for grades 9-11. Students were told of the move only on Friday, news reports said.
President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been violated and Putin suggested "dialogue with the opposition-minded" — breaking from his usual authoritarian image. The Kremlin has come under strong international pressure, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the vote unfair and urging an investigation into fraud.
If Saturday's protests are a success, the activists then face the challenge of long-term strategy. Even though U.S. Sen. John McCain recently tweeted to Putin that "the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you," things in Russia are not that simple.
The popular uprisings that brought down governments in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine the next year and in Egypt last spring all were significantly boosted by demonstrators being able to establish round-the-clock presences, notably in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the massive tent camp on Kiev's main avenue. Russian police would hardly tolerate anything similar.
Opposition figures indicated Friday that the next step would be to call another protest in Moscow for next weekend, with the aim of making it even bigger. But staged events at regular intervals may be less effective than daily spontaneous protests.
The opposition is also vulnerable to attacks on the websites and social media that have nourished the protests. This week, an official of Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, reported pressure from the FSB, the KGB's main successor, to block access to opposition groups, but said his company refused.
On election day, the websites of a main independent radio station and the country's only independent election-monitoring group fell victim to denial-of-service hacker attacks.

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