Russian riot police detained more than 500 protesters including opposition leader Alexei Navalny yesterday at rallies challenging the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential election.
Putin, who secured almost 64% of the votes on Sunday, portrayed his return to the presidency as a triumph over opponents who were trying to usurp power, though international monitors said the vote was clearly skewed in his favour.
Opposition leaders said they drew 20,000 people into Moscow’s Pushkin Square to call for new elections and an opening up of the political system crafted by Putin during his 12-year rule.
“They robbed us,” Navalny, a 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger, told the crowd before his detention. “We are the power,” he said to chants of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief”.
The atmosphere at the rally was jovial at first, but became tense when riot police in helmets moved in to disperse several thousand activists who stayed on the square.
Encircling one group of protest leaders, riot police detained Navalny and others and marched them to waiting police vans.
Opposition leaders said 500 to 1,000 people were detained but police put the number at 250 and said 14,000 people had attended the rally.
The US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said on Twitter that the arrests were troubling and that freedom of assembly and speech were universal values.
Thousands of Putin supporters staged rallies closer to the red walls of the Kremlin, singing songs, waving Russian flags and chanting Putin’s name.
At least 300 people were detained by riot police at unsanctioned protests in the northern city of St Petersburg, Putin’s home town, a police spokesman said. Up to 3,000 people turned out in St Petersburg, witnesses said.
“The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia,” Tonino Picula, one of the vote monitors from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said yesterday.
“According to our assessment, these elections were unfair.”
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