- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman on Tuesday defended the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators protesting the election returning the autocratic leader to the presidency, saying police were professional and effective.

Police on Monday night arrested protesters who remained on downtown Moscow’s Pushkin Square after an officially approved rally finished. Those detained included some main figures from anti-Putin protests that arose late last year.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency RIA Novosti that “the opposition action occurred in two parts — the legal and the illegal. And in both the legal and illegal parts police showed a high level of professionalism, legitimacy and effectiveness.”

The statement indicates that authorities intend to continue to crack down on protests outside of specifically authorized gatherings.

Moscow police spokesman Gennady Bogachev said Tuesday that the approximately 250 people arrested Monday had been released. Most face civil charges that carry a maximum penalty of 2,000 rubles ($65).

Mr. Putin, who has been prime minister since relinquishing the presidency in 2008, won the Sunday election with more than 63 percent of the vote, according to official figures.

But the opposition and independent observers say there was widespread fraud, including so-called “carousel voting,” in which busloads of people are driven around to cast multiple ballots.

In the months leading up to the election, opposition leaders were elated not only by the large crowds their protests attracted — some in Moscow as big as 100,000 — but by the unusual official tolerance from officials who previously rejected almost all permission requests for opposition rallies.

But with Mr. Putin to be inaugurated in May for a six-year term, it is unclear if the opposition will be able to maintain its momentum and whether authorities will continue to allow large protests.

Opposition leaders were to meet later Tuesday with Moscow city authorities on a request to hold a large rally on Saturday.

The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday sharply criticized the election observers mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which reported serious problems in the election, including questionable vote counting and a campaign environment strongly skewed toward Mr. Putin.

A ministry statement called the mission’s conclusions “prejudiced and disputable.”

It reiterated Russia’s frequent complaint that the OSCE sets double standards for its Eastern and Western members and said the most reliable reports came from observer missions of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations.

Those groups consists largely of countries that reject democracy or respect it only partially.

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