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‘Elections are over,’ Putin tells protesters

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — After more than three weeks of public protests over fraud allegations in Russia’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made clear that he will not accede to one of the principal demands of demonstrators.

There will be no re-vote, he said Tuesday, in televised remarks.

“The elections are over … and the Duma (the parliament’s lower house) is functioning,” Putin declared. “All talks about any revision (of the election results) are impossible.”

Putin, who is seeking a return to the presidency in March elections, also lashed out at leaders of the ongoing protests, saying they “display their weakness by resorting to insults.” At a Moscow rally last weekend attended by tens of thousands of protesters, Putin was the main target of often derisive comments by speakers who vowed to drive the former two-term president from power.

“They don’t have a unified program, they don’t have a unified vision of which means to use to achieve their goals, which they have yet to formulate, and they don’t have people,” Putin said. “I can hardly imagine that any of them can do any concrete work to develop our state.”

Yet despite Putin’s tough rhetoric, the Kremlin continues to make concessions to the opposition. On Tuesday, Vladislav Surkov, one of the main targets of the opposition’s anger, was transferred from his key position on the presidential staff to a government post as vice premier in charge of modernization.

Nonetheless, opponents, who charge that the election results in which Putin’s United Russia party received nearly 50 percent of the vote were fraudulent, continued Tuesday to demand his ouster.

“Putin’s evaluation of the opposition demonstrates that he has no understanding of the real situation in the country,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said in an interview. “The opposition ranks are as united as never before and our rallies will continue until we completely stop Putin from getting back into the Kremlin.”

Another opposition leader, blogger Alexei Navalny, said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio that honest elections are needed, even if Putin and his party win.

Navalny, who says he would like to be president himself, added that the candidates on the March ballot “will in no case be accepted as legitimate.”

“If (the authorities) don’t fulfill (our demands) we will hold a bigger rally, a demonstration and so on, and if they don’t carry out (our demands) again we will take to the street again and never go away,” Navalny added.

Both Navalny and Nemtsov said that the opposition is planning its next big rally at the end of February, just days before the election.

Putin said Tuesday that he intends to make the March vote as transparent as possible even if it takes $500 million to install a Web camera at every polling station across the nation. But even pro-Kremlin experts said Tuesday that Putin faces a tough situation, since even if the election is fair, many will still believe the longtime leader rigged the results.

“The Kremlin makes one concession after another, but they so far they have failed to contain this Perestroika 2,” Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow-based think tank, said Tuesday. “It is clear to me that Putin will be elected in the end, but it is a big question how long he will last after that.”

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