With police helicopters hovering low over central Moscow and security forces blanketing the streets, at least 20,000 protesters gathered Monday to accuse Vladimir Putin of stealingRussia’s presidential election and demand his immediate resignation.
The Central Election Commission reported that Putin, seeking to regain the presidency after four years as prime minister, won in the first round Sunday with 64.7% of the vote. The result puts Putin, who previously served eight years as president, on track to possibly serve two new six-year terms.
Perennial Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov had 17% and billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets NBA team, had 7%, it said.
However, both international and Russian observers said they had detected numerous serious irregularities. And the opposition movement that sprouted in response to reports of widespread cheating in parliamentary elections in December said it would step up its protest campaign.
As dusk settled over protesters gathered Monday in Moscow’s Pushkin Square and the temperature plunged well below zero, a popular song blasted out of amplifiers: “My state is a thief, a dirty and cynical thief.” And the rally began with the crowd chanting, “Putin is a thief!”
“I came here because I just hate the thought of having to live another 12 years under Putin and his corrupt gang,” said Alexander Zhukov, a 46-year-old industrial designer. “We should not stop protesting for a day, and finally they will give in and leave the country to us.”
Prominent opposition leaders pledged to stay in the square, but police moved in and arrested protesters who remained after the rally was over. Officials said 250 people were arrested in Moscow, but it was unclear whether all of them were detained at Pushkin Square.
Tonino Picula, head of an observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, presented a report Monday citing a lack of “real competition, and abuse of government resources” in the election. It listed instances in which it said voters cast multiple ballots, as well as multiple problems with the vote count.
At a news conference, independent Russian observers spoke of instances in which voters were brought from one polling station to another in buses or new names were added to lists of eligible voters on election day. In other cases, they said, people voted at their workplace with their bosses telling them which square to mark, and a large group of people who were all registered as living in a vacant building voted at a polling station near Moscow.
“In my view, the scope of falsifications this time was simply monstrous,” said Mikhail Shneider, a regional coordinator of the Citizen Observer public movement. “Putin didn’t win fairly in the first round and there should be the second round.”
Two observers who worked for Prokhorov’s campaign said they were beaten up in the town of Zheleznodorozhny, about 15 miles east of Moscow.
Eldar Dadin said several men accosted him and a colleague as they were trying to write out a complaint about being prevented from properly overseeing the voting process. “They hit me and my friend several times and dragged us outside,” he said.
In the street, he tried to break away, but the men choked him to the point where he nearly passed out, and then pushed the two observers into a car.
“When I realized they were taking us out of town I got real scared and for a moment thought they would kill us,” said Dadin. Instead, they were dumped in a deserted industrial zone outside town and warned not to return.
Sergei Udaltsov, an opposition leader who spent several months in jail last year for his protest activities, said there was no choice but to increase the pressure on Putin.
“They stole at least 15% of the vote and cheated us out of the second [election] round,” Udaltsov said in an interview. “We can’t accept that, and we will be stepping up peaceful protests in the streets and squares of Moscow.”
Another opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, said the protest movement built around urban middle-class people needed to do a better job of getting its message out to the rest of the country. Navalny and Udaltsov were among those arrested when police dispersed the remaining protesters. Navalny was soon released.
Prokhorov surprised protesters at Pushkin Square by taking the stage, promising to found a new party and continue the fight. Many had questioned whether Prokhorov was independent or running in league with the Kremlin.
“We will build a country that everyone will be proud of,” he said. “You want changes, and I will do my best so that you may see those changes.”
Reports earlier in the day said another opposition leader, Eduard Limonov, and about 50 supporters were arrested in front of the Federal Security Service headquarters in central Moscow. In St. Petersburg, police arrested about 300 protesters who tried to rally in St. Isaac’s Square.