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Putin ally sworn in as Moscow mayor amid opposition protests

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's ally on Thursday was sworn in as city chief despite claims of foul play in polls from his anti-Kremlin rival Alexei Navalny who sent a car-load of complaints to court.

Sergei Sobyanin, a Kremlin ally who barely avoided a run-off in Sunday's closer-than-expected vote, was inaugurated for a new term during a pompous ceremony attended by Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Speaking in front of hundreds of guests, Putin said the elections were held during "a truly free, absolutely competitive battle, without any pressure or attempts to distort the results of these elections".

"People saw that in our country and such big metropolises like Moscow power is established not with the help of destructive rallies and civilian confrontation but with the help of civilised democratic procedures," Putin said in an apparent dig at Sobyanin's opposition rival Navalny.

The ceremony at one of the capital's landmark parks took place after the Moscow election commission refused to conduct a partial recount demanded by Navalny, who officially polled a stronger-than-projected 27.2 percent of the vote.

He insists that election officials helped Sobyanin avoid a run-off by allowing irregularities during at-home voting and at polling stations without observers.

At the inauguration, Putin acknowledged the "protest vote" but chalked it up to Muscovites' anger with "snobbish" officials.

"The election campaign was not easy," Sobyanin said during his inaugural address as he was presented with a massive golden chain, a symbol of office.

Navalny said however his team had documented evidence that the vote was partially rigged in favour of Sobyanin, who was appointed Moscow mayor in 2010 but had called the election before his term was due to end.

According to official results, Sobyanin received 51.3 percent of the vote, but Navalny's team insists the inauguration should be cancelled because according to its data the mayor polled around 49 percent.

The election commission has dismissed the claims.

Earlier Thursday, Navalny brought some 20 boxes stuffed with what he says is evidence of vote violations to the Moscow city court.

"We believe that the election on the whole should be cancelled because administrative resources have been used," Navalny said, referring to government interference in the poll.

Similar complaints have been filed with three dozen district courts, Navalny's team said.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow city court said it had received a petition from Navalny requesting that the results of the vote be cancelled.

In a meeting with Sobyanin and other newly elected regional chiefs, Putin earlier this week praised the elections that took place in Moscow and elsewhere across Russia on Sunday as transparent and legitimate.

Independent observers said they had registered vote irregularities, although not as serious as those witnessed in previous polls.

Claims of wholesale violations during 2011 parliamentary polls prompted tens of thousands to take to the streets of Moscow to protest against the ruling party United Russia and Putin himself.

Analysts say Navalny, who shot to prominence during those protests, was allowed to run in Moscow to give the vote a veneer of legitimacy.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Navalny's result "significant" but said he had yet to prove he was a real politician.

In a departure from tradition, Sobyanin's swearing-in took place in a museum at the Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial Park, one of the city's top landmarks.

In the run-up to last year's presidential elections, authorities bussed thousands of people for a pro-Putin rally at the park at the peak of the anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the winter of 2011-2012.

According to a notice posted on Navalny's blog, a major state company had been told to make sure its employees attend a concert in honour of the inauguration.

A Sobyanin spokeswoman denied that people were forced to attend the swearing-in en masse.

Moscow police said more than 40,000 people attended the concert Thursday evening.

Analysts saw the election as a key breakthrough for Navalny but also as a sign of alarming political apathy in Moscow, with turnout at just 32 percent.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130912/putin-ally-sworn-moscow-mayor-amid-opposition-protests