Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union leader, has called for Russia’s elections be rerun due to fraud.
Riot police in helmets roughly dragged more than 550 protesters into detention vans Tuesday evening in central Moscow but the opposition warned they would stage a major protest organised via the internet at the weekend. Protesters were planning more demonstrations today.
Amid growing international alarm, Mr Gorbachev said the results of Sunday’s poll should be annulled and new elections held due to “numerous falsifications and rigging.”
“The results do not reflect the will of the people,” Mr Gorbachev, president when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, told the Interfax news agency.
“Therefore I think they (Russia’s leaders) can only take one decision – annul the results of the election and hold new ones.”
Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party won the polls with a sharply reduced majority, amid signs the prime minister’s once-invincible popularity might be waning.
The opposition says that the ruling party’s performance would have been even worse in free polls.
The conduct of the polls, which OSCE-led observers said were slanted in favour of United Russia, raised international concern. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the elections were neither free nor fair.
The Russian foreign ministry protested that Clinton’s comments were “unacceptable”.
Activists say some results stretched all credibility, such as United Russia’s polling 99.5 per cent in the Caucasus region of Chechnya and almost all the residents of a Moscow psychiatric hospital voting for the party.
Internet-based protesters vowed further demonstrations in the days to come, despite a warning by police that participants in unsanctioned protests would be arrested.
A group “for honest elections” said on its Facebook page that a new demonstration would take place on Revolution Square in central Moscow on Saturday. More than 10,000 members of the Facebook group have already promised to attend.
Another social networking group, calling itself “against the party of swindlers and thieves” – the opposition’s slogan for United Russia – said protests would take place every day at 7:00pm (1500 GMT) including Wednesday.
“Come at our own risk,” it said. “You can always wait for Saturday’s protest.”
Russia’s liberal newspapers hailed the protests, saying the opposition had finally found a voice against the domination of Mr Putin.
“We prevented the real political process and built cardboard scenery instead. But it’s dangerous to hold back a natural process: now it’s payback time,” wrote liberal daily Vedomosti in an editorial.
The Nezavisimaya Gazeta added: “The middle class has started to express its discontent, which is an extremely alarming signal for the authorities.”
Moscow Echo radio said six of those detained Tuesday had already been given jail terms of up to 15 days but it was not clear how many of those arrested were still being held.
Police were already setting up metal barriers around Trimumfalnaya Ploshad where Tuesday’s protest was held to prevent another gathering. Opposition activists had also found themselves outnumbered by pro-Kremlin youth bused in to make a show of strength.
The authorities were caught by surprise when the first opposition rally on Monday evening attracted thousands. Influential opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, who coined the slogan “swindlers and thieves”, was among those arrested and was sentenced Tuesday to 15 days in jail.
State television news has virtually ignored the demonstrations, and the morning bulletin on Channel One did not contain a single mention of the protests.
But with the authorities clearly nervous, police said that more than 51,000 police were guarding the city streets, among them 2,000 army conscripts, in a heightened security regime.
United Russia polled just under 50 per cent of the vote after winning more than 64 per cent in 2007 but still held on to an absolute majority of seats in parliament. Its biggest opposition in the State Duma will be the Communists.