Lawmakers Stage Rare Protest During Clinton's Russia Visit

By Philip P. Pan and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 15, 2009

MOSCOW, Oct. 14 -- The minority political parties in Russia's parliament walked out of the chamber in a rare act of protest Wednesday, embarrassing the Kremlin during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and demanding a recount of votes in local elections widely perceived to have been rigged.

The protest was unusual because the parties generally cooperate with the Kremlin in what the pro-democracy opposition says is a stage-managed legislature. It was the first time in nine years that all lawmakers outside the dominant United Russia party have engineered a walkout, suggesting growing political strains caused by the economic crisis and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's authoritarian policies.

Putin's United Russia, which holds 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, swept local elections Sunday, winning up to 80 percent of the 7,000-plus races and all but three seats on the 35-member city council in Moscow. Independent observers and opposition parties reported mass electoral violations, including clashes between voters and police in one province.

"This is outright fascism," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said Wednesday after leading his faction out of parliament. He was followed by the Communist Party, which accused Putin of bringing the political system to a new low, and Fair Russia, a left-wing party formed with Kremlin support three years ago.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a Fair Russia lawmaker, said his party was protesting not only election fraud, which has become routine in Russia, but also an attempt by the authorities to forbid debate on the subject in the Duma. "It was done in such an arrogant way that we felt it was useless to stay," he said. "They denied us the right to even speak. That's the minimum in a parliament. Otherwise, what's the point?"

But Ponomaryov said the parties would return to parliament by the end of the week after receiving assurances that President Dmitry Medvedev would meet with them and support a proposal that would forbid the ruling party from silencing them in the future.

There was no immediate comment from Medvedev, who has called for greater political competition in Russia and had praised the elections as "well organized." But speaking to reporters in Beijing, Putin dismissed the fraud allegations. "Those who don't win are never happy," he said.

The protest came on the last day of a visit that Clinton has used to speak relatively forcefully about the shortcomings of the Russian political system, even as she has tried to strengthen relations with the Kremlin and persuade it to support sanctions against Iran if necessary.

Clinton met with human rights activists at a reception at the U.S. ambassador's residence Tuesday. "A society cannot be truly open when those who stand up and speak out are murdered," she told them. She added, "Those of you here today not only understand the risks, you live them."

She continued pressing the issue during an interview on the Echo of Moscow radio station Wednesday, saying that she met an activist at the reception who had been badly beaten and calling such attacks "a matter of grave concern" to the United States.

"All of these issues of imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings -- it is something that is hurtful to see from the outside," she said. "Every country has criminal elements. Every country has people who try to abuse power. But in the last 18 months -- well, and even going back further -- there have been too many of these incidents."

She added: "I think people want their government to stand up and say this is wrong, and they're going to try to prevent it, and they're going to make sure the people are brought to justice who are engaged in such behavior."

Later, addressing 1,000 students at Moscow State University, Clinton criticized officials in Washington and Moscow who are skeptical of a closer U.S. relationship with Russia.

"I will be the first to tell you, we have people in our government, and you have people in your government, who are still living in the past. They do not believe us and Russia can cooperate to this extent. They do not trust each other," she said. "And we have to prove them wrong."

Clinton did not identify the officials. But the statement recalled a remark by President Obama this year describing Putin as having "one foot" in the "old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations." Later, after meeting Putin in Moscow, Obama said he was convinced that Putin was interested in moving forward.

Despite the correction, the Obama administration has often highlighted its relationship with Medvedev, the protege Putin selected to succeed him as president. Medvedev has seemed more open to sanctions against Iran and has presented himself as more interested in liberal political reforms than Putin, who remains the most powerful politician in Russia.

Clinton said nothing about the Duma protest before leaving Russia, but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley expressed concern about the voting fraud allegations and said fair elections are key to fighting corruption. "And, of course," he added, "that's the vision that's been articulated by President Medvedev."

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