Russians go to polls after summer of protests

Moscow, Sept 8 (AFP/APP):Russians vote Sunday in local elections after weeks of opposition protests that led to the biggest police crackdown on dissent in nearly a decade.

Elections take place after Moscow and Kiev carried out a long-awaited swap of 70 prisoners on Saturday, a deal hailed as a first step towards ending five years of conflict after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Municipal and regional polls will be held across the country, but most attention will be focused on the Moscow parliament vote following the arrests and jailings of independent would-be candidates and their supporters.

Analysts say the results of the vote will be keenly watched ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 and will help shape Russia’s political future, as President Vladimir Putin enters his third decade in power.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands have taken part in Moscow protests demanding a fair vote after allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were barred from the election. Rap stars and prominent bloggers backed the demonstrations.

Authorities responded with a police crackdown — the biggest since a wave of protests in 2011-12 against Putin’s return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.

Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik analysis firm, said the campaign exposed a growing rift between authorities bent on preserving the status quo and Russians wanting political change.

“The Moscow parliament elections have become a litmus test of the authorities’ ability to accept this new reality,” Stanovaya told AFP.

Authorities briefly jailed nearly all opposition politicians seeking to get on the ballot in Moscow.

Several people were also imprisoned for alleged violence against police, even though opposition supporters said their rallies were peaceful.

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