Russian parliament meets despite fraud claims

AFP , Wednesday 21 Dec 2011

Russian Parliament opens its new session in defiance of mass protests sparked by opposition claims it was elected in rigged polls

Deputies during the opening of the first session of Russia's State Duma (Reuters)

Russia's lower house of parliament, dominated by Vladimir Putin's party, was Wednesday to open its new session in defiance of mass protests sparked by opposition claims it was elected in rigged polls.

The opening of parliament at 0800 GMT comes as Russia freed anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition activists after they served 15-day jail terms for taking part in an unsanctioned rally protesting the election results.

Claims of vote fraud in the December 4 polls to elect the new State Duma brought tens of thousands out into the streets across Russia earlier this month in the largest show of public anger since the turbulent 1990s.

Opposition activists, encouraged by that success, are seeking to drum up support for a new rally on Saturday to protest the victory of Putin's United Russia that over 30,000 people have said on Facebook they will attend.

The State Duma, where the ruling party obtained 238 out of 450 seats, is widely expected to approve the candidacy of Sergei Naryshkin, the mild-mannered former chief of Kremlin staff, as the new speaker.

Its previous speaker, the dour-faced United Russia party chairman Boris Gryzlov, had served two parliament terms since 2003 and quit the post earlier this month as the Kremlin scrambled to respond to the mass protests.

Seeking to highlight the principle of continuity of parliamentary rule, United Russia said that previous Duma speakers Ivan Rybkin and Gennady Seleznyov as well as Gryzlov would attend the opening session.

Putin, who is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his 12-year rule, is seeking to win back his old Kremlin job in March presidential elections.

The most recent polls showed his popularity has taken such a dive that he will not be able to secure victory in the first round.

Putin, who insists that the opposition leaders are in the pay of the US State Department, has made light of the rallies and ridiculed the protesters,

On Tuesday, the embattled opposition complained of a smear campaign after pro-Kremlin sensationalist website Life News published recordings of phone calls by fierce Putin critic Boris Nemtsov.

In the recordings, Nemtsov could be heard badmouthing his colleagues, in a move the opposition said was aimed at sowing discord among its ranks.

Navalny, who has become a figurehead for the opposition through his blog that exposes corruption at state companies, was freed from a police station in Moscow, the Solidarnost (Solidarity) opposition movement said.

Also freed was opposition leader Ilya Yashin, who was arrested at the same time as Navalny during the first protest against the December 4's parliamentary elections.

Another 10 activists who took part in the protest were also freed, Solidarnost added.

Navalny said upon his release from jail that the opposition would continue protests until their demands were met.

"We were jailed in one country and freed in another."

"Right now the party of swindlers and thieves is nominating for president its chief swindler and thief," he added, referring to Putin's intention to stand for the presidency in 2012 polls.

Navalny first coined the phrase "swindlers and thieves" to describe United Russia and the slogan has since been taken up by the entire opposition.

Dozens of prominent cultural figures including singers, writers and actors were calling on Russians to join the new Saturday rally, which has obtained permission from the authorities to go ahead.

"We have to go," opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta said on its front page in an address to its readers.

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