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Russia

Kremlin flexes its muscles amid post-election protests

A heavy police presence, soldiers in the streets and imprisoned protesters. The Kremlin is showing who's boss after disappointing results in parliamentary elections for Putin and Medvedev's United Russia party.

A boy walks in front of a row of riot police in Moscow

Since the poll, security forces have been especially visible

"If 100 of you show up, then we'll beat you up. If there are 1,000 of you, then we'll use tear gas. If 10,000 people march in the streets, then we'll stand and watch you. But when 100,000 people show up, then we'll join you," was the response to a video on the current protests in Moscow, posted as a user comment on the site of YouTube. A police officer is believed to have said it after the arrest of a young Russian.

There are still more police officers than demonstrators on the streets of Moscow. According to official figures, more than 50,000 security forces were deployed on this past Tuesday. That's compared with several thousand protesters who have been demonstrating in Moscow since the beginning of the week over reports of massive voter fraud in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Officially United Russia, the party of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, suffered heavy losses but still maintained a majority in the Duma. Those results are disputed, however, and more than 300 protesters were arrested on Tuesday in Moscow, including many members of the opposition.

A tense city

There weren't just demonstrations against United Russia but also for. Thousands of people, especially young people, gathered in a square in the middle of the city to celebrate the party's victory.

"Russia! Russia!" they shouted, and "Russia! Putin!" and "Medvedev! Victory!"

United Russia supporters drum and shout

Some people rallied in support of United Russia as well

The crowd was led by a young drummer in a military uniform. Many of the pro-Putin demonstrators had reportedly been brought to Moscow specifically to demonstrate for United Russia. One group of girls said they had come from the city of Tula, about a four-hour drive from the Russian capital.

The mood in the city remained tense on Wednesday. There were reports of journalists being arrested. Some streets and squares had been blocked off by police. The city center was full of police buses. They stood in a row along Tverskaya Street, Moscow's grand boulevard, and along the side streets. Large military trucks were parked next to the Hotel Moscow and on Revolution Square.

Gorbachev calls for new vote

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who is known as a Putin critic, has meanwhile weighed in with a call for a new vote in Russia.

Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency that fresh elections should be held because of "numerous falsifications and rigging" during the parliamentary vote.

He added that the results did not "reflect the will of the people." The 80-year-old former leader warned that ignoring public opinion would bring authorities into discredit and destabilize the situation.

Revolution unlikely

Experts however say they don't think Russia is ripe for a revolution like the late 2004 and early 2005 Ukrainian protests against dirty elections that turned into the Orange Revolution and forced a re-vote.

Thousands of demonstrators waving Ukrainian national and orange flags gather to protest alleged fraud in the 2004 presidential elections

The protests in Ukraine were much larger than they currently are in Russia

"I'm not expecting that right now, because the Russian establishment is too strong and too powerful," said Lars Peter Schmidt, the head of the Moscow office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German conservative political foundation. But the protests could escalate, he said.

"The level of election manipulation that you can see in the videos online is relatively high," he said. "And the younger generation and the newly emerged middle class in Russian cities is no longer satisfied with the political situation in Russia."

If there are further, ongoing protests, the Kremlin "will probably attempt to use pressure in the short-term to keep things small," Schmidt predicted. There is a "very active security apparatus in Russia," he said, that would extinguish the protests "so that they could calm things down again for the medium term."

Large silent majority

Sascha Tamm, who represents the economically liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Moscow, also said he believes that the numbers of protesters is still too low for a country the size of Russia to represent a real threat. However, "if the protests are repeated and start up in other cities as well, then this is a problem [for the Kremlin] because it shows that the authorities' power and reach is just not as strong as we thought," Tamm said.

There are in fact already reports of protests against the election results in other Russian cities such as Rostov-on-Don and Samara, although it's still only a few hundred people taking to the streets. The country's massive silent majority is still not protesting. That would change if the Kremlin continues to act as it did before the elections, says Lars Peter Schmidt.

"If you want to have a chance of surviving politically, then you have to allow more participation for the large chunk of the Russian population that is dissatisfied," he said. "Otherwise in the medium-term you won't be able to stick around."

Author: Jego Winogradow, Roman Goncharenko / hf
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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