Friday 23 December 2011

Russian protests

Russian protest mood sweeps into Duma
Opposition MPs buoyed by anti-government feeling refuse to back Putin ally for role of speaker in Moscow parliament

Wednesday 21 December 2011 19.23 GMT

The mood of protest that has swept Russia in recent weeks made its way to the parliament in Moscow as deputies met for the first time since the disputed parliamentary vote that saw Vladimir Putin's United Russia party returned to power with a much-reduced majority.

Opposition MPs, buoyed by the unprecedented anti-government protests, refused to support the candidate for speaker put forward by United Russia, which lost 77 seats in the elections, amid widespread allegations of fraud.

Sergei Naryshkin, a longtime Putin ally and suspected former KGB officer, won the vote for speaker' with 238 votes – exactly the number of seats United Russia now holds in the chamber, which has traditionally been a rubber stamp parliament working in the interests of the ruling party.

Naryshkin attempted to soothe angry opposition parliamentarians by saying that "a parliamentary majority is by no means a monopoly".

"My firm conviction is that, indeed, parliament is a place for very serious and substantial discussions," he said.

Naryshkin's predecessor Boris Gyzlov, pushed out after United Russia's poor showing in the early December vote , once famously said that the State Duma was "no place for discussion".

Among those elected to the new Duma were Maria Kozhevnikova, a 27-year-old Playboy Russia covergirl, who was recently voted the country's sexiest woman by Maxim magazine, former heavyweight boxer Nikolai Valuyev and retired tennis champion Marat Safin.

About 20 people were detained outside the Duma building in central Moscow for attempting to hold an unauthorised demonstration. The detentions came hours after opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and dozens of other activists, were released after serving 15-day sentences for disobeying police orders during Russia's first major protest earlier this month.

Speaking to journalists and supporters upon his release in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Navalny said the mass detentions "only managed to achieve the creation of yet another fierce group" that would work to ensure Russia's protest movement grew in strength.

"We will continue to go out into the streets until our legal and reasonable demands are fulfilled," he said.

Russia's next protest is set for Saturday, with nearly 38,000 people indicating their intention to attend via Facebook.

United Russia lost 77 seats in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, following an election that critics say was marred by fraud across the country. Protesters are demanding that the elections be reheld and have also begun to focus on Russia's 4 March presidential vote, when Vladimir Putin, currently prime minister, hopes to return to the presidency.

"The party of crooks and thieves is putting forward for the presidency its main crook and thief," said Navalny, referring to Putin and United Russia. "We have to vote against him, fight against him."

The 35-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption blogger said he would consider running for president if free and fair elections – including the registration of all parties and candidates, currently tightly controlled by the Kremlin – were held.

Putin has disparaged the protesters as western stooges.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who agreed to cede a second term in favour of Putin's candidacy, is due to address the chamber on Thursday. Medvedev has been rhetorically more considerate to Russia's protesters, saying in a speech last week that Russia's political system had "exhausted itself" and denying Putin's charge that demonstrators were turning out because they were being funded by the US state department.Critics say he failed to transform his reformist words into actions during four years as president.

Putin has not addressed the protests since first commenting on them last week. On Wednesday he met a small- and medium- sized business lobby and promised to transform Russia into a top location for business over the next 10 years. About $74bn has fled the country this year, accelerating as the protests took hold.

Putin is hoping to win a six-year term as president in Russia's upcoming presidential vote – something taken as a given until the middle class rose up in protest. His approval rating has now fallen to 35%, according to the independent Levada Centre.

Protesters are hoping to force him in to a second round.

"[Putin] cannot be president of our big, wonderful country," Navalny said upon his release. "What happens on 4 March, if it happens, will be in illegal result."

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