Hours after Russia elected a new president, riot police on Monday detained opposition protesters, pro-government youth rallied outside the U.S. Embassy and Russia reduced gas supplies to Western-looking Ukraine.
The moves may signal that the president-elect, Dmitry Medvedev, intends to continue the course set by Vladimir Putin, who during his presidency reasserted his country’s power abroad while keeping a tight grip on society at home.
Putin asked Medvedev to take charge of meetings of the presidential State Council, fast-tracking a transfer of power to his protege. Putin, set to retain power as Medvedev’s prime minister, also suggested they work together on a Cabinet reshuffle.
Results from 99.45 percent of precincts showed that Medvedev, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, received more than 70 percent of Sunday’s vote, the elections commission said Monday.
With nearly all votes counted, hundreds of young people marched through Moscow toward the U.S. Embassy to criticize American policies in Kosovo, Iraq and the Muslim world. After rallying briefly across the street from the embassy and unfurling a banner, police told them to leave and they dispersed.
A short time later, hundreds of riot police detained dozens of youths near a downtown Moscow square where opposition groups had planned an unauthorized protest against the presidential elections.
As some chanted “We Need Another Russia!” police stormed through the crowd, tackling people and dragging them away, their arms wrenched behind their backs or their shirts half-torn off.
The crushing display of police force was sign that authorities would allow no critical mass of dissent or independent opposition as the Kremlin celebrates Medvedev’s victory.
“Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have thought that my children would be growing up in a country that reminds me so much of the Soviet Union,” said Alexander Ivanov, 48.
Kasparov leads opposition rally
In St. Petersburg, Garry Kasparov — the former chess champion who is now an ardent Kremlin foe — and his co-leader in the Other Russia opposition coalition appeared at a simultaneous protest. Unlike in Moscow, the group had permission for the rally in St. Petersburg.
A crowd estimated by police at up to 3,000 gathered in a square and marched toward the heart of the city, shouting “Down with the Police State!” and “This City is Ours!” Police did not intervene.
Election observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said Monday that Russia’s presidential election was neither free nor fair, although it reflected the will of the people in a country with little faith in democracy.
Andreas Gross, who led the 22-member mission, described Sunday’s vote as a “reflection of the will of the electorate whose democratic potential unfortunately has not been tapped.”
The influential Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had refused to send observers, citing restrictions imposed by Russian authorities.
The election ratified Putin’s choice of a successor but did not settle the question of who will be calling the shots once Medvedev takes over in May and names Putin prime ministers as widely expected.
The outside world will watch closely to see how the new leadership in Russia, with its immense oil and gas reserves, engages with global rivals and partners at a time of rising commodities prices.
The Bush administration said it looks forward to working with Medvedev.
“It’s in our mutual interest for Russia and the United States to work together on areas of common interest such as nonproliferation, counterterrorism and combating transnational crime,” Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday.
Medvedev, who also serves as chairman of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, reduced gas supplies to Ukraine on Monday. Russia says the dispute over natural gas with Ukraine is strictly a financial one, a result of the alleged nonpayment by Ukraine for $600 million in past gas deliveries.
But the timing suggested a possible deeper motive: a signal that despite his purported liberal leanings, Medvedev plans to rule with a firm hand — one perhaps guided by Putin.
The last time Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine was in January 2006 in a move widely seen as punishment for the opposition-led Orange Revolution, which blocked a Kremlin-backed candidate from becoming Ukraine’s president.
Since then, Russia has expressed continuing anger over Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO and forge stronger links with the European Union.
Medvedev may have been motivated by the need to appear tough in the face of Russia’s dispute with Ukraine over gas payments, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist for the UralSib investment bank.
“He didn’t want to be seen as backing down,” he said.
Gazprom’s reduction of gas to Ukraine could be an early signal of Medvedev’s foreign policy. Another early sign could come in July at the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations: If Putin goes alone or accompanies Medvedev, that could signal his reluctance to relinquish control.
In Russia, the premier wields significantly less power than the president, and Putin may find his new chair confining. Some officials who know the quiet, unassuming Medvedev have said privately that he is tougher than his appearance and demeanor suggest.
Medvedev’s election was not a wide-open contest. His three rivals apparently were permitted on the ballot because of their loyalty to the Kremlin line. But after the election, Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky alleged elections violations.
Zyuganov, Medvedev’s nearest challenger with almost 18 percent in near-complete results, said he would dispute the outcome. Zhirinovsky, with 9 percent, threatened to do so as well.
Liberal opposition leaders Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov were barred from running after authorities said they did not meet the strict requirements for gaining a spot on the ballot.