MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin held out an olive branch to Russia’s opposition Monday before protesters take to the streets to challenge Vladimir Putin’s victory in a presidential election they said was a “declaration of war.”
Putin celebrated his victory Sunday by telling tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters near the Kremlin that his triumph had saved Russia from enemies trying to usurp power.
The prime minister, who is returning to the post he held for eight years until ushering Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency in 2008, had tears in his eyes as he took aim in his speech at protesters opposing his 12-year-domination of Russia.
His opponents complained of widespread fraud in the ballot, in which the former KGB spy won more than 63 percent of the vote, and said they would show their disgust by demonstrating in central Moscow Monday evening.
“He is forcing things to breaking point. He is declaring war on us,” said journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the protest organizers.
With Putin and the opposition on collision course, the Kremlin issued a statement that could be intended to take the sting out of the protests which began over alleged fraud in a parliamentary poll on December 4 and increasingly target Putin.
Medvedev, who will stay in office until early May and is expected to swap jobs with Putin, told the prosecutor general to study the legality of 32 criminal cases including the jailing of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky, who headed what was Russia’s biggest oil company, Yukos, and was once the country’s richest man, was arrested in 2003 and jailed on tax evasion and fraud charges after showing political ambitions and falling out with Putin.
The Kremlin said Medvedev had also told the justice minister to explain why Russia had refused to register a liberal opposition group, PARNAS, which has been barred from elections.
The order followed a meeting last month at which opposition leaders handed Medvedev a list of people they regard as political prisoners and called for political reforms.
Medvedev’s initiatives “have only one goal: To at least somehow lower the scale of dismay and protest that continues to surge in society,” Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
The move could be a stalling tactic intended to appease the organizers of the biggest protests of Putin’s rule, or it could be a parting gesture by a man intent of making his mark as the more liberal of the ruling “tandem” with Putin.
Almost complete election results Monday showed Putin, 59, had won 63.68 percent of votes.
Zyuganov was second on just over 17 percent and liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov had almost 8 percent. Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky secured just over 6 percent and former parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov had less than 4 percent.
“There were practically no serious violations,” Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov told reporters, dismissing the allegations of irregularities across Russia by the opposition and volunteer vote monitors.
Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had registered at least 3,100 reports of violations nationwide. An international observer mission was due to announce its findings later Monday.
Although the urban protest movement portrays Putin as an autocratic leader who will stymie political and economic change in Russia, he rallied core supporters in an election campaign that took him to many of the country’s far-flung regions.
Many voters see him as a safe pair of hands and credit him with restoring order after the chaotic 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin and overseeing an economic boom.
“I want stability. I don’t want any kind of change,” Maria Budaeva, a 38-year old university teacher, who backed Putin.
Raisa Sidorik, a 64-year old housewife, said: “He knows the economy, he knows the political system. It seems to me he’s the best candidate.”
Putin is sure to portray his emphatic election victory as a strong sign of public support against the protesters, whom he has portrayed as a destabilizing minority and pawns of foreign governments.
He is all but certain to revive his tough rhetoric against the West as he tackles foreign policy problems including a risk of isolation over the bloodshed in Syria.
He is also under pressure from foreign investors to cut Russia’s dependence on energy exports.
But many in big cities, especially Moscow and St Petersburg, say he is an obstacle to change and the guardian of a corrupt political system which benefits his friends and allies.
“Nothing has changed,” said protest leader Alexei Navalny. “You cannot call what just happened elections.”
(additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin and Katya Golubkova; writing by Timothy Heritage; editing by Elizabeth Piper)