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(Reuters) – Russian riot police detained more than 500 protesters including opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Monday at rallies challenging the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential election.

Putin, who secured almost 64 percent of the votes on Sunday, portrayed his return to the presidency as a triumph over opponents who were trying to usurp power, though international monitors said the vote was clearly skewed in his favour.

But opposition leaders said they drew 20,000 people into Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the scene of dissident protests during Soviet times, to call for new elections and an opening up of the political system crafted by Putin during his 12-year rule.

“They robbed us,” Navalny, a 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger, told the crowd before his detention. “We are the power,” he said to chants of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief.”

The atmosphere at the rally was jovial at first, but became tense when riot police in helmets moved in to disperse several thousand activists who stayed on the square.

Encircling one group of protest leaders huddled in a fountain closed down for winter, black-helmeted riot police detained Navalny and others and marched them to waiting police vans.

Opposition leaders said 500-1,000 people were detained but police put the number at 250 and said 14,000 people had attended the rally.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said on Twitter that the arrests were troubling and that freedom of assembly and speech were universal values.

Thousands of Putin supporters staged rallies closer to the red walls of the Kremlin, singing songs, waving Russian flags and chanting Prime Minister Putin’s name.

At least 300 people were detained by riot police at unsanctioned protests in the northern city of St Petersburg, Putin’s home town, a police spokesman said. Up to 3,000 people turned out in St Petersburg, witnesses said.

Putin says he won a six-year term as Kremlin chief in a fair and open contest, but vote monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe echoed the opposition’s complaints that the election had been slanted to help him.

“The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia,” Tonino Picula, one of the vote monitors, said on Monday. “According to our assessment, these elections were unfair.”

“UNFAIR” VOTE

The U.S. State Department called for an “independent, credible” investigation into all reported violations.

The monitors said there had been some improvements from a parliamentary poll on December 4 which observers said was marred by irregularities, but said Putin still had an advantage over his rivals through massive media coverage and the use of state resources to help him extend his domination of Russia for six more years.

Although the observers’ findings have no legal bearing, they undermine Russian election officials’ statements that there were no serious violations.

They would also support some in their view that elections ultimately have little real significance in Russia; that power is tightly controlled and divided up by a largely stable ruling clique, as demonstrated by the ‘tandem’ power deal struck by Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008.

Putin’s opponents, fearing he will smother political and economic reforms, have refused to recognize the result, which could allow the former KGB spy to rule Russia for as long as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, accused of presiding over “the years of stagnation.”

“I used to love Putin, like any woman who likes a charismatic man. But now I think he is getting senile. Nobody can stay in power forever,” Vasilisa Maslova, 35, who works in the fashion trade, said during the opposition rally.

“Voting yesterday, I felt like I was choosing the least dirty toilet in a crowded train station.”

Protesters in Moscow held up banners reading “12 more years – no thanks” and “We need a Russian president, not a leader for life.”

JAILED TYCOON

In a conciliatory move, Putin invited his defeated presidential rivals to talks, although Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov did not attend.

The Kremlin also took steps that appeared intended to try to take the sting out of the protests which began over the December 4 poll won by Putin’s United Russia party.

Medvedev, who will stay in office until early May, told the prosecutor general to study the legality of 32 criminal cases including the jailing of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky, who headed what was Russia’s biggest oil company, Yukos, and was once the country’s richest man, was arrested in 2003 and jailed on tax evasion and fraud charges after showing political ambitions and falling out with Putin.

The Kremlin said Medvedev had also told the justice minister to explain why Russia had refused to register a liberal opposition group, PARNAS, which has been barred from elections.

The order followed a meeting last month at which opposition leaders handed Medvedev a list of people they regard as political prisoners and called for political reforms.

Medvedev’s initiatives “have only one goal: To at least somehow lower the scale of dismay and protest that continues to surge in society,” Zyuganov said.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove, Maria Tsvetkova and Jennifer Rankin, writing by Timothy Heritage and Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Tim Pearce)

Why Russia protects Syria’s Assad

Posted by arnon_k On February - 2 - 2012 ADD COMMENTS

Editor’s note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.”

(CNN) — As casualties mount before the brutal onslaught of Bashar al-Assad’s forces against Syria’s pro-democracy protesters, the Russians are being unhelpful again. In Washington and Brussels, even habitually cool diplomats have been showing frustration.

On January 31 Russia joined with China to block a plan presented to the U.N. Security Council by Morocco and supported by the Arab League that called on Assad to hand power to his deputy, who would then call a general election. If Assad did not comply within 15 days, the resolution threatened undisclosed “further measures.”

Moscow already had vetoed one resolution denouncing Assad’s use of force in October. As Western leaders sought to pry the Syrian dictator from power, his old friends in Moscow sent an aircraft-carrying missile cruiser to Syrian waters in a show of support last month and shipped his troops a consignment of Yakhont cruise missiles.

Such actions are just the latest in a litany of obstructionist maneuvers and spoiler ploys whose goal often appears merely to undermine Western international objectives. From Washington, Moscow has seemed determined to soften or delay sanctions on Iran aimed at curbing its nuclear ambitions, to stall in talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, to intimidate pro-democracy movements in neighboring states, and to egg on anti-American dictators such as Hugo Chavez.

Western commentators typically attribute such behavior to Putin’s personal paranoia or to attempts to rekindle the nation’s wounded pride and assert Russia’s superpower status. Look a little closer, however, and Russia’s actions seem motivated more by calculated — albeit sometimes miscalculated — realpolitik than by psychological impulses.

First, strategic interests are at stake. In Tartus, Syria hosts the sole remaining Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, currently being refurbished by 600 Russian technicians after long disuse. To have to give up this Middle Eastern beachhead would be a shame, as far as the Russians are concerned.

Second, although limited, Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus — both those signed and under negotiation — total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy, and tourism sectors, worth $19.4 billion in 2009.

Counting pennies while protesters are gunned down may seem cynical. “How many people need to die before the consciences of world capitals are stirred?” Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague demanded on January 31, clearly thinking of Moscow.

But Russian policymakers have developed an allergy to Western leaders’ moralizing. Just as it was pressing al-Assad to resign, the U.S. State Department quietly lifted a ban on military aid to the Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan, which had butchered its own protesters a few years earlier. (Uzbekistan is important for supply lines to NATO troops in Afghanistan.) Neither did Washington press the king of Bahrain — where the U.S. Navy has a port — to step down after he crushed popular demonstrations in his capital.

From Washington, the West’s recent interventions in the Middle East seem unplanned and responsive, with modest goals. From Moscow, it is easy to see a pattern in the repeated use of force to overthrow leaders — from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya — and diplomatic pressure to dislodge others — in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. President George W. Bush may be gone, but his “Freedom Agenda,” it sometimes seems, lives on.

Libya is a particularly sore point. Russia’s leaders felt they were tricked into supporting a resolution to protect civilians, only to see it used to provide cover for airstrikes to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. Vague phrases like “further measures” now set off alarm bells.

Beyond commercial and strategic interests, the Kremlin’s greatest fear is of instability in the Middle East and Central Asia. Russian policymakers already worry about the northward spread of Islamic militancy and opium if the departure of NATO from Afghanistan leads to Taliban resurgence and state collapse.

Rather than a fairytale struggle between the people and a dictator, they see a potentially explosive religious conflict between Syria’s ruling Alawis (close to Shi’a Islam) and majority Sunnis. The zeal with which rulers of the Gulf states and some in Washington call for al-Assad’s ouster seems part of a broader project to isolate Iran, Syria’s ally.

Still, unless al-Assad manages to decisively defeat his opposition in short order, the Russians are likely to soften their position — not because of moral arguments, but simply because they do not want to end up on the losing side. If they alienate al-Assad’s successors, the very interests they seek to protect could be in jeopardy. Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov hinted at a shift on January 31, saying: “We are not friends or allies of President Assad.”

Picking the perfect moment to dump a congenial dictator is never easy — consider Washington’s contortions over Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the French embarrassment over their late coddling of Gadhafi. Walking out too soon risks alarming other allies. Waiting too long creates the image that one is both reactionary and out of touch.

The Kremlin’s policymakers are hardly adept at this, and certainly may wait too long. So far, they believe al-Assad still has a reasonable chance of survival. If his prospects dim — as seems likely –some minor rephrasing of the U.N. resolution will likely be enough to satisfy Russian concerns and bring them on board.

MOSCOW (CNN) — In his first televised interview since he was launched toward the presidency again, Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Monday that his goal of returning to the Kremlin was to “stabilize” and “diversify” the national economy as well as to “strengthen the fundamental basis of the political system and the democratic institutions” of the country.

Putin said he “had never sought this post (the presidency)” in the first place, but once he accepted his responsibilities, he wanted to continue pulling Russia out of decades of economic and political turbulence following the demise of the Soviet Union.

“If I start something, I either try to complete it, or at least improve things as much as I can,” he said. He pointed to the examples of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the United States as president for four consecutive terms; former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in office for 16 years; and post-World War II French and Canadian leaders who served lengthy tenures.

However, Putin said that using his political influence he could have easily adjusted the Russian constitution to allow himself another consecutive run after having served two presidential terms from 2000 to 2008, but chose not to do so and stepped down, paving the way for his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Over the past two years, Putin and Medvedev have repeatedly fanned the flames of intrigue by saying in public they would decide together which of them would run for the Russian presidency in 2012.

Putin’s taped interview was aired Monday on Russia’s three national networks — Channel One, Russia 1 and NTV.

Medvedev used exactly the same format on September 30 — talking to the same interviewees — to explain that he is ceding his presidential bid to Putin because Putin has higher public opinion ratings, and therefore stronger election chances.

But in his Monday interview Putin said he envisioned his return to the country’s top job all along.

“Four years ago, we agreed that this scenario was quite possible if we endure this period of fairly serious tests,” Putin said. “We decided that if we go through the next four years successfully, then we will have the right to put forward our idea of power configuration to the society: who will do what, what principles we will stick to, and where we will lead our country and our state.

“The moment came and we put it forward,” he said. “This is a settled issue for us, but not for our citizens. We proposed this configuration and it’s up to the citizens to show at polling stations whether they accept this proposal,” Putin added.

Last month, Medvedev called on the ruling United Russia party to endorse Putin for president in 2012. Putin in turn suggested that Medvedev should take over the role of prime minister if the party wins parliamentary elections in December, in what would be a straight swap of their roles.

Under amendments to the constitution that came into force on December 31, 2008, the presidential term was extended to six years.

This means that if Putin is elected in March 2012 for six years, he would be eligible to run for another six-year term after that, potentially keeping him in charge until 2024.

But in the Monday interview, Putin brushed aside widespread parallels between his future presidency and the rule of old and incompetent Soviet leaders who led the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I cannot recall post-war Soviet leaders working as intensively as I do or as President Dmitry Medvedev does,” Putin said. “They (Soviet leaders) were unable, because of their physical condition. … Perhaps, they could have stirred themselves into action, but the problem was they did not understand what to do. Nor did they have the will to do it,” he said.

Putin said his government, which successfully handled the 2008-2010 world financial crisis, is better than ever prepared for new economic tests. He said that despite the hard times, the Russian economy will grow by 4% this year, and that the annual inflation rate, which now stands at 4.7%, is projected to be the lowest in the past two decades.

(CNN) — Russia has announced a ban on fresh vegetable imports from the European Union in the wake of a deadly E. coli outbreak that has swept across parts of Europe, state media reported Thursday.

“The ban will be in effect until we become convinced that this situation is resolved — that is, when the source of the infection is located and it is established how it is being transmitted, but most importantly, when the outbreak is contained and people stop getting infected and dying,” Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Russian Federal Agency for Health and Consumer Rights, told the state-run ITAR-TASS news agency.

Customs officials have been instructed to prevent the produce from entering the country, according to Onishchenko. Supermarkets and food chains in Russia were told to withdraw European vegetables from their produce bins.

The ban could potentially affect some larger cities in the European part of the country, where about 90% of vegetables are imported, said Sergey Shugayev, chairman of the Rural Russia Association.
China and Turkey are the two largest exporters of fresh vegetables into Russia, according to the Russian Greenhouses Association.

The outbreak is responsible for 15 deaths in Germany and one in Sweden, according to the World Health Organization. The outbreak has sickened more than 1,000 people in at least 10 countries.

The European Food Safety Alert Network said EHEC, or enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, a strain of E. coli that causes hemorrhaging in the intestines, was found in organic cucumbers originating from Spain, packaged in Germany and distributed to countries including Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg and Spain.

But the source has not yet been pinpointed, authorities said.

The ban on fresh vegetables from the European Union comes three days after Russia blocked the import of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and salad greens from Germany and Spain. On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates imposed a temporary ban on cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

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