WASHINGTON -- A U.S. State Department official says recent mass protests in Russia could represent a "nationwide awakening" among Russians who want more accountability from their government.
Protesters across Russia have staged a series of demonstrations accusing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party of rigging votes in the party's favor during the December 4 parliamentary elections, which United Russia narrowly won. More major protest rallies are being organized for December 24.
At a hearing in the U.S. Senate on December 14 focusing on rule of law and corruption in Russia, Thomas Melia, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, said "the curtain has gone up on a new act" in Russia, though he said Russia's future direction remains unclear.
Melia said Russia's postelection protest movement "is a nationwide awakening, if you will, of citizens who want to see their government be accountable. They want to see elections that matter."
At the same hearing, Senator Jeanne Shaheen accused the Kremlin of marking this month's 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union "by manipulating elections and engineering a carefully orchestrated political switch" that would see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev exchanging positions around next year's presidential election.
Putin was limited by the Russian Constitution to two consecutive presidential terms ending in 2008, but he has officially launched a bid to return to the presidency in a move that critics fear might lead to political and economic stagnation.
Melia said Washington was encouraged about what he called "the peaceable way" in which Russian police handled protests on December 10 involving tens of thousands of demonstrators against the way the elections were run. He said Russian police have now demonstrated that they can facilitate large gatherings when instructed by their leaders to do so, and he urged Russian leaders to make this type of respect for free assembly the norm.
Putin has accused the United States of provoking the unprecedented postelection protests.
Analysts say Putin remains the favorite to win the presidency in the March election.