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Putin rattled by 'unprecedented' protests

Text by Ben MCPARTLAND

Latest update : 2011-12-06

Troops and riot police clashed with pro-democracy protesters in Moscow for the second night running on Tuesday. But in the wake of allegations of election fraud, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is unlikely to relinquish his grip on power.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s response to the unexpected results of last weekend’s national elections, which saw his United Russia party scrape just enough seats for a majority, was just to shrug his shoulders.

Despite preliminary results revealing his party polled less than 50 percent of the vote, a staggering drop of 15 percent from 2007, Putin simply described the losses as “inevitable for any political force” in the current economic climate.

If his reaction to the election results appeared rather nonchalant, Putin’s response to two days of unprecedented demonstrations by protesters angered by allegations of election fraud was certainly not.

Thousands of Interior Ministry troops and riot police flooded the streets to deal with the protesters and by Tuesday night over 500 had been arrested in Moscow alone. According to Russian news agencies, another 200 pro-democracy protesters were detained in St Petersburg after defying a ban on demonstrating. Activists were given swift justice with one protest organiser Ilya Yashin, a prominent blogger, handed a 15-year jail term.

“Putin will ignore his own advice”

Professor Emeritus Margot Light from the London School of Economics (LSE) believes Putin, rather than bowing to protesters’ demands, will simply tighten his grip in the coming days.

“Putin is likely to ignore the advice he himself gave President Assad in Syria which was that he should work with the opposition,” Prof Light, an expert in Russian politics, told FRANCE 24.

“The protests against him are unprecedented, but he is likely to match it by upping the repression and that will be awful. He has always clamped down on any public protests or demonstrations so these arrests are not uncommon. It’s his style.”

Despite Putin’s stern response, Professor Light believes the strongman has been shaken by the protests which are a clear sign of the first “chink in his armour”.

That chink was first noticed just weeks ago when he was booed by the crowd at a martial arts contest in Moscow in an extraordinary show of public protest. Prominent activist and blogger Alexei Navalny, who was also arrested in Monday’s protests, described the public show of discontent as the “end of an era”.

Putin will stand in the presidential elections next spring after which he is expected to regain a position he held between 2000 and 2008. But even if he has been undermined this week, chances are he won’t be floored by the ongoing protests.

“He is a shoe-in to become the next President of Russia in the elections next year because he is only up against himself,” said FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Douglas Herbert.

400 papers all marked in the same way

United Russia will only take 238 seats in the 450-seat Russian state Duma. What is perhaps surprising is that United Russia’s poor performance came amid widespread allegations of election fraud aimed at swinging the ballot in their favour.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which was tasked with observing the Russian elections, witnessed a number of irregularities on the day of the election.

Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher,  a spokesman for the ODIHR, told FRANCE 24 that “procedures were not followed” during the vote count and there was clear evidence of fake voting papers being stuffed into ballot boxes.

“I spoke to one delegate who said they saw an open ballot box with 400 papers all marked in the same way for one party and they were all folded together in a stack,” he said.

Mr Eschenbaecher said the focus will now be on how Putin and United Russia deal with the allegations of election fraud.

“Our monitors will stay in the country for the next three weeks. We will follow events and how the appeals and complaints process is handled by the authorities and to what extent they are going to investigate them,” he said.

Internet is fuelling the protests

For some observers of Russian politics, irregularities are nothing new. What changed this time is the fact that the public is now armed with new technology and the internet.

Bloggers have openly ridiculed the results and photos claiming to prove voting election fraud emerged on internet sites such as Twitter.

“The internet played a very important and possibly decisive role in changing people’s attitudes towards elections,” independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the AFP news agency. “The number of actual irregularities may not have grown, but people’s response to them was much stronger”.

According to FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert, Russia's youth are internet savvy. “They have access to Facebook and Twitter as well as hand-held cameras and smart phones. So the police and Putin’s political machine cannot get away with things anymore,” he said.

But Professor Light of LSE believes Twitter and Facebook could come under Putin’s radar if the protests do not die down.

“The interesting thing is that although there has been a lot of interference on the internet, they have up to now left Facebook and Twitter alone but we are likely to see that changing now as part of his crackdown,” she said.

An Arab Spring inspired regime change is not on the cards in Moscow but if the protests and the crackdown continue Putin could be receiving the same kind of advice he gave to Syria.

Date created : 2011-12-06

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