Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an inquiry into claims of electoral fraud after tens of thousands joined a protest in Moscow on Saturday.
News agencies reported that Medvedev ordered the investigation after up to 50,000 people took to the streets of Russia’s major cities to express their anger at over disputed parliamentary election results.
"People have the right to express their views which is what they did yesterday," Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page. "I don't agree with the slogans or the declaration that rang out at the meetings. Nevertheless, instructions have been given by me to check all information from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections."
However the attempt to pacify the protests appeared to have backfired, when thousands of Facebook users took to the page to attack the president.
"Your time has gone, everything was decided yesterday, democracy will be created not by you," one of the messages said according to the Telegraph, who translated some of the "milder" responses.
The demonstrators say that elections last Sunday, which resulted in a small victory for Putin's United Russia Party, were fraudulent. A smaller protest, of around 8,000 people, followed the December 5 vote, and there have been other, fragmented shows of opposition in the regions since, analysts said.
In Moscow thousands of troops were deployed to maintain order. The demonstration, the biggest in Russia in twenty years, is the first ever challenge to Putin’s grip on power. The protesters are demanding that the elections be held again and the freeing of political prisoners.
The organisers of the protest in Moscow issued the following demands:
- Freedom for political prisoners
- Annulment of the election results
- The resignation of the election commission's Vladimir Churov and an investigation of vote fraud
- Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections
- New democratic and open elections
The Kremlin originally sanctioned a protest of no more than 300 people to take place in Revolution Square. When the crowds far exceeded that number, the Kremlin compromised to allow 30,000 to congregate in Bolotnaya Square.
Away from Moscow, arrests were made in Russia’s second city St Petersburg, where the Guardian suggests around 7,000 gathered in opposition to Putin. The Associated Press is reporting that 100 arrests were made.
In total, demonstrations took place in around 80 cities across the vast country, with Reuters reporting protests from "Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast nearly 4,600 miles away."
Earlier, the Russian electoral commission has said there will be no fresh vote. Stanislav Vavilov, Vice chairman of the Central Election Commission, told the Interfax news agency that the “elections were acknowledged as valid and there are no reasons for any other opinions. We see no reason for election revision.”
In London, a gathering of around 200 demonstrators protested outside parliament to support the action in Moscow and beyond.
Some commentators have been quick to associate the rising tide of opposition to Putin's administration with the Arab Spring of popular movements that deposed autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, although some analysts believe that Putin's grip on power is too strong.
Putin, now prime minister, served the maximum two consecutive terms as president before handing over to Dmitri Medvedev in 2008. He has indicated that he will run for president again in elections in March 2012.
"Russia is unlikely to follow the path of Egypt or other nations that comprise the Arab spring. Putin still retains significant popularity, and Russia has $515 billion in reserves of which approximately $115 billion could be used for social spending," Eurasia Group analyst Cliff Kupchan wrote on Friday night.
"Moscow's security forces remain loyal, and in a crunch, at least elite troops would probably use force. Many Moscow elites are disgruntled but garner significant benefits from the government, while among the population apathy is reduced but appears to remain widespread."
Additional Reporting by Peter Guest.