MOSCOW -- Police and antigovernment protesters have clashed in downtown Moscow as demonstrators defied a government ban and came out for a second straight day of rallies against alleged vote fraud in parliamentary elections on December 4.
An estimated 500 people calling for an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule chanted "Russia without Putin" and "Freedom." Hundreds of pro-Kremlin demonstrators also turned out, attempting to drown them out with chants of "Putin."
Police blocked off central Moscow's Triumph Square and, according to the AFP news agency, detained approximately 250 antigovernment demonstrators, including opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
AFP also reported that some 50 people were detained in St. Petersburg after opposition supporters tried to stage a rally.
Tens of thousands of police and Interior Ministry troops were deployed in Moscow on December 6 as a show of force in anticipation of unrest.
Earlier in the day, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi amassed an estimated 5,000 activists in a demonstration in solidarity with the authorities on Manezh Square near the Kremlin walls. Boris Gryzlov, a leading member of the ruling United Russia party, is due to lead another pro-Kremlin demonstration in the evening.
Another rally was led by the pro-regime youth group Stal in which they beat drums to express support for Putin.
Interior Ministry forces spokesman Vasily Panchenkov said on December 6 that the new troops in Moscow "have just one aim -- to ensure the security of the citizens." He did not say how many troops were deployed. Witnesses reported that trucks loaded with troops were driving into central Moscow.
The daily "Kommersant" reported that 50,000 police have been deployed in Moscow as well as 11,500 Interior Ministry troops to bolster them.
The dueling demonstrations and beefed-up police and troop presence came on the heels of what many are describing as the largest demonstration in the Russian capital in more than a decade, a development that illustrates growing discontent with Russia's rulers.
On the night of December 5, as many as 10,000 people gathered on a central Moscow boulevard and called for Putin's resignation after his ruling United Russia party won a razor-thin majority in the December 4 legislative elections.
Official preliminary figures gave United Russia 49 percent of the vote -- down sharply from 64 percent in the last elections, in 2007 -- while the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party were also expected to reach parliament.
Thousands of violations were alleged during the voting, and videos allegedly capturing "carousel" voting -- in which people are transported to vote at multiple polling places -- were posted on the Internet. Exit polls predicted far lower support for United Russia in key areas like the capital, where official results were more than double the 27 percent figure that polling suggested.
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted violations such as ballot stuffing and said United Russia was given an unfair slant in media coverage and in other aspects of the campaign.
Three hundred protesters were dragged away to trucks by armed riot police on December 5 as the sanctioned rally spilled out of its allotted area and protesters tried to march to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Central Election Commission.
Among the arrested were anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and Solidarity youth leader Ilya Yashin, both of whom tried to whip up the crowd of protesters from a raised stage with calls of "Putin, out!" under icy rain.
United Russia won 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, sharply down from the 310 the party took in 2007.
Opposition activist Ilya Yashin is escorted into a Tverskoi district court in Moscow on December 6.
At a meeting with United Russia officials on December 6, Putin, who recently announced plans to return to the presidency in next year's election, said he was satisfied with his party's performance despite the decline. He said United Russia retained a "stable" majority in parliament -- it had a so-called supermajority that gave it the power to change the constitution -- saying that a drop in support for any ruling party is inevitable.
"There will be a significant renewal inside the State Duma, it's an obvious fact," Putin said. "But the next stage following the presidential election will be the forming of the next government and, as we have said many times before, there will be a significant renewal among members of the government, too."
The opposition contends that the results would have been considerably worse for United Russia if not for election violations.
"About 10 to 15 percent of the votes were the result of ballot-box stuffing, falsifications, and the rewriting of protocols. United Russia's real result is no more than 35 percent, maybe even less than that," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov told Reuters during the December 5 demonstration.
"They have the most catastrophic situation in cities with a population of over 1 million: they got 20 to 25 percent there, at best. So this is a failure," Ryzhkov added. "The victory of the Communists, A Just Russia, and the LDPR is not really their victory but the result of voting in protest."
There are signs the authorities recognize they may have miscalculated in their micromanagement of Russian politics.
Deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, widely seen as the regime's unofficial ideologist, in an interview published on Ekho Moskvy's website said that Russia lacked "a massive liberal party, or to be more precise, a party for the disgruntled urban masses."
Navalny Emerges As Leader
A rapid-fire court case on December 6 found Yashin guilty of "disobeying police orders"; he was jailed for 15 days. Navalny also received a 15-day sentence.
Speaking at the protest on December 5, Navalny asked what Putin and the elite around him had "done all this time" in office. He said Putin "had a colossal mandate of trust. They had the Duma, which they controlled, they enjoyed support, they had high oil prices. Now we look back and realize that we didn't get anything: no police reform, no army reform, no fight against corruption."
Aleksei Navalny speaks at the opposition protest in central Moscow.
He said, "It's obvious that people who were fervent Putin supporters maybe two years ago or five years ago now say, 'Look, buddy, we hired you to work, but you've done nothing, so we don't support you anymore.'"
Navalny is seen by many as the strongest opposition leader, although his popularity has thus far been limited by his focus on Internet activism.
But that could be about to change, following his detention on December 5. Aleksei Venediktov, head of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, posted a message on Twitter saying that arresting Navalny was "a political mistake, turning him from online leader into offline one."
Meanwhile, several online news outlets, including the online television station Dozhd and popular blogging platform LiveJournal, were periodically jammed on December 6.
Independent online media and websites for election observers have also been hit by multiple denial-of-service attacks.
The OSCE's observers criticized the vote as exhibiting "limited political competition and a lack of fairness" and said the "lack of separation between the governing party and the state" threatened the process.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on December 6
noted to an OSCE ministerial meeting that there were "serious concerns" about the Duma elections and said that public confidence is eroded by "elections that are neither free nor fair."
Clinton said she was also concerned by reports that independent Russian election observers, including the nationwide Golos network, were harassed.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the meeting that OSCE observers' reports show that Russia "still has a way to go" to fulfill all of the organization's standards.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, however, rejected the international criticism as amounting to interference in Russia's affairs.
"Whether or not we have enough parties [in parliament] is in the competence of the Russian authorities, not international organizations," he said. "It is one thing to follow the quality of elections, violations, but the question of what the political system looks like is none of their business. Soon they'll be telling us how to write our own constitution."
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow dismissed U.S. criticism, in particular, as "unacceptable."