Putin ally re-elected Moscow mayor amid mass arrests
By Olga ROTENBERG / Anna SMOLCHENKO
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally has been overwhelmingly re-elected Moscow’s mayor, officials said Monday, following a poll overshadowed by pension protests and mass arrests.
However, the ruling party suffered a major blow in several regions as Russians voted to elect governors and local lawmakers in a nationwide day of polls on Sunday.
The United Russia party recorded its worst performance in regional elections in more than a decade as voters registered their anger over a controversial reform set to raise the state retirement age and economic conditions deteriorating under Western sanctions.
Election day was marred by the arrests during protests against the hugely unpopular pension reform, with more than 1,000 –including journalists — detained, according to an independent monitor.
Putin thanked Russians for voting, saying the election results underscored their trust in the authorities.
“On the whole the election campaign was conducted decently, with a pretty high voter turnout,” Putin told officials in the far eastern city of Vladivostok.
Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of the Russian capital since 2010, won a predictable victory with 70.02 percent of the vote. Turnout stood at 30.8 percent.
In 2013, Sobyanin barely escaped a second-round run-off after a strong challenge from Putin’s top critic Alexei Navalny, who unexpectedly picked up over a quarter of the ballots.
This time serious opposition candidates were kept off the ballot in favour of the incumbent.
Ahead of the vote a Moscow court jailed Navalny for 30 days after he announced plans to stage a rally against pension reform on election day.
The ruling party suffered several major upsets.
In the far eastern city of Khabarovsk and in the Primorye, Khakasia and Vladimir regions, gubernatorial elections will go to a second round after United Russia candidates failed to win 50 percent of the vote.
Communists beat candidates of the ruling party in elections to the regional parliaments of Khakasia, Irkutsk and Ulyanovsk regions.
– Kremlin defends police –
Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said Russians are tired of “the long, punishing crisis whose end is nowhere in sight” and have stopped voting for the ruling party by default.
“This is a path towards political competition,” Makarkin told AFP.
Putin appeared to dismiss the ruling party’s poor results in several regions, calling second round run-offs an “absolutely normal phenomenon”.
Heeding a call from opposition leader Navalny, thousands took to the streets of dozens of cities against the controversial pension reform.
Police arrested 1,018 people, mainly in Russia’s second largest city Saint Petersburg and the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, independent monitor OVD-info said.
Police violently broke up unsanctioned rallies, including in Saint Petersburg where more than 450 people were detained.
As in previous rallies, many of the protesters were young, including minors, and pictures of the police manhandling teens went viral on social media.
Fourteen journalists were detained and another three beaten up, said the Trade Union of Journalists and Media Employees, an independent group.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said police acted “in strict accordance with the law” adding that some were attacked by “hooligans and trouble-makers”.
In Moscow, police opened two criminal probes over violence against officials, the OVD monitor said.
Observers noted fewer people turned up to protest against the reform than in May after Putin softened the pension reform.
Government plans to raise the state pension age to 60 for women and 65 for men, from the current 55 and 60, have also seen Putin’s approval ratings take a major hit.
Sobyanin’s supporters say he has transformed Moscow with billion-dollar renovation projects that include a showpiece central park and new pedestrian areas along with a string of new metro stations.
But critics argue these were a sop to a new urban middle class which has in the past protested against Putin’s rule, as the Kremlin tightens the screws against dissenters.