Rare show of defiance against Putin


RUSSIAN OPPOSITION deputies walked out of parliament during a speech by prime minister Vladimir Putin yesterday in a rare show of defiance prompted by claims of vote-rigging in a regional election.

Members of the Just Russia party left the assembly after Mr Putin dismissed their complaints that an election for mayor in the southern city of Astrakhan had been rigged in favour of his United Russia party.

The walkout highlighted the increased boldness of Russia’s long-docile opposition following big protests in Moscow over presidential and general elections that returned Mr Putin to the Kremlin, but sharply reduced United Russia’s ruling majority.

In his last speech to parliament as premier before his inauguration as president on May 7th, Mr Putin called on his critics to move on from campaign struggles and unite for the good of Russia, which he said was emerging strongly from the economic crisis but which still needed major reform.

“If we could not have responded to the crisis . . . it would have put in doubt the sovereignty and the geopolitical integrity of the country,” said Mr Putin.

Mr Putin’s calls for unity and a fresh start faced a challenge from Just Russia, however, when its deputies challenged him about Astrakhan, where the party’s candidate for mayor Oleg Shein has been on hunger strike for almost a month in protest at alleged vote-fraud. “As far as I know, your colleague Oleg Shein has started a hunger strike, but did not appeal to court. This is a bit strange. Why go on hunger strike?” Mr Putin asked. “Maybe the court will sort it out and everybody will agree with the outcome. It seems to me that they have to go to court.”

Mr Shein and his supporters say they have no faith in local courts, echoing the view of millions of Russians who see judges as puppets controlled by powerful political and financial figures.

Long used to enjoying paeans from servile deputies, Mr Putin was forced to listen to sharp criticism from Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov when he returned to the chamber.