Russian parliament meets despite fraud claims
MOSCOW - Agence France- Presse
Deputies stand and listen to the national anthem during the opening of the first session of Russian State Duma, the lower house of the parliament, in Moscow December 21, 2011. REUTERS PhotoRussia's lower house of parliament, dominated by Vladimir Putin's party, on Wednesday opened its new session in defiance of mass protests sparked by opposition claims it was elected in rigged polls.
The playing of the Russian national anthem marked the opening of the new State Duma, which is expected to be less pliant than in previous years after the United Russia party won less than half the vote in parliamentary elections.
"People are demanding freedom and expansion of democracy," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party known for his bombastic style, said at the start of the session.
"People can't hear us and therefore are taking to the streets. We, those who are sitting here in this hall, are to blame for it." 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. The opening of parliament came 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.
Opposition activists, encouraged by the success of those rallies, are seeking to drum up support for a new rally on Saturday to protest the victory of Putin's United Russia. Over 30,000 people have said on Facebook they will attend.
Later in the day 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 Kremlin chief of 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.
The Kremlin, seeking to deliver on its promises to look into reports of wholesale violations, said on Wednesday that it had received interim results of a probe from the interior ministry and investigators.
It said the largest amount of campaign violations were recorded in Moscow, putting the figure at 462.
The Kremlin statement appeared to play down the scale of fraud however, saying authorities were conducting five probes into ballot stuffing in Moscow and several other regions.