MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin fast-tracked the transfer of power to his newly elected protege Monday and signaled the Kremlin won't back down from its pull-no-punches anti-U.S. foreign policy or ease up on its critics at home.
President-elect Dmitry Medvedev credited his overwhelming election victory Sunday to Putin's policies that have "so effectively been pursued in recent years.'"
Medvedev has stressed he will pursue Putin's foreign and domestic agenda, and in a sign that little would change, Russia squeezed natural gas supplies to Western-leaning Ukraine, and police in Moscow manhandled opposition protesters who denounced the election as a farce.
Also in Moscow, a pro-Kremlin youth group kept up criticism of the United States, a frequent target of Putin's wrath in eight years as president. Hundreds of young people took aim at the U.S. Embassy in a march to denounce American foreign policy.
More than two months before Medvedev's inauguration, Putin put him in charge of presidential State Council meetings a symbolic show of trust and a display that they will rule together. The move may be designed to boost Medvedev's authority in he eyes of officials at the body's meetings and the ordinary Russians who see them on the TV news.
Medvedev has vowed to make Putin his prime minister, enabling the forceful leader to maintain strong influence.
Still, the softer accents in some of Medvedev's statements have prompted talk that he could bring a thaw, to some degree, in Russia's chilly relations with the West and the Kremlin's intolerance of domestic dissent.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the U.S. will work with Medvedev on continuing its relationship with Russia.
"We've had a constructive relationship, we're going to try to extend that," Rice said aboard a plane to the Middle East.
She declined to say whether she thought the election was free and fair, saying she had already commented about "the general trends in Russia."
"I said not too long ago that we all look forward to the day where there's a contested presidential election in Russia with all the protections that that means," she said.
In Moscow, police, some in riot gear, thwarted an opposition protest of the election in Moscow, grabbing dozens of people and hauling them into buses. Demonstrators chanted "Shame!" and "Down with the police state!"
At one point, police grabbed a young woman holding a bunch of red roses and picked her up off of her feet. "I haven't done anything!" she screamed.
Opposition figure and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who says harassment and hurdles erected by the Kremlin forced him to drop his dropped his presidential bid, led 2,000 protesters in an authorized march in St. Petersburg. "Medvedev's appointment is illegitimate," he said. "March 3 is the day we start fighting against an illegitimate regime."
Medvedev's election was assured by support from the popular Putin and the powerful Kremlin. He received more than 70 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said.
The election was tainted by lopsided state media coverage favoring Medvedev and accounts of pressure on voters. Across Russia, voters say they were pushed, cajoled and pressured to cast ballots as part of a Kremlin campaign to ensure a strong victory for Putin's protege.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, in second place with about 18 percent of the vote according to the official count, called the election a "farce" designed to keep Putin in power and accused the government of "the crude blackmail, intimidation and bribery of millions of people."
The Russian monitoring group Golos reported hundreds of alleged violations in the campaign and the vote, including ballot-box stuffing, false voter registration, multiple ballots being cast and police intimidation. Director Liliya Shebanova said Golos monitors recorded violations including suspicious absentee ballots, voting in the name of dead citizens, and students being bused to polling places and improperly registered.
The head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's vote observation mission, Andreas Gross, said balloting was not free or fair. But he called it a "reflection of the will of the electorate, whose democratic potential unfortunately has not been tapped."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe refused to send observers, citing Russian restrictions. Western nations have accused Putin of backtracking on democracy, but he has dismissed the criticism and fired back by accusing the West of meddling.
In his rhetoric, Medvedev has presented a softer image. But in his dual role as an official and simultaneously chairman of state-controlled natural gas monopoly OAO Gazprom, he has helped implement Putin's drive to give the Kremlin a near-monopoly on political power and energy resources at home and increase its clout abroad through energy supplies.
On Monday, Gazprom made good on a threat to reduce gas supplies to Ukraine in a debt dispute that Moscow says is strictly financial.
The timing did nothing to suggest Medvedev would break from the assertive style of Putin, who has faced Western accusations of using Russia's energy riches as political muscle.
Medvedev may have been motivated by the need to appear tough in the dispute, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist for the UralSib investment bank. "He didn't want to be seen as backing down," he said.
Russia last cut gas supplies to Ukraine in January 2006 a move widely seen as punishment for the opposition-led Orange Revolution, which blocked a Kremlin-backed candidate from becoming Ukraine's president and ushered a Western-leading leader to power. Since then, Russia has expressed continuing anger over the Ukrainian leadership's efforts to join NATO.
The outside world will watch closely to see how the new leadership in Russia, with its immense oil and gas reserves, engages with global rivals and partners at a time of rising commodities prices.
Medvedev stressed that Russia's president sets foreign policy, but he also said he shared Putin's priorities and gave no signal of a shift.
The election ratified Putin's choice of a successor but did not settle the question of who will be calling the shots once Medvedev takes over in May and names Putin prime minister.
Most Russians expect the mild-mannered Medvedev to follow Putin's lead, at least at first.
The tightly controlled election clouded efforts to gauge Medvedev's real level of support, and he has suggested he understands what every Russian knows that he owes his rise to Putin.
But the teacher-pupil relationship between Putin, 55, and Medvedev, 42, will face more serious tests after the May 7 inauguration. In Russia, the premier wields significantly less power than the president, and Putin may find his new office outside the Kremlin confining.
An early sign could come in July at the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations: If Putin goes alone or accompanies Medvedev, that could signal a reluctance to relinquish control.Some officials who know Medvedev have said privately that he is tougher than his appearance and demeanor suggest. Russian history also shows that rulers often like to get rid of those who backed their ascent to power.
Contributing: Douglas Birch, Lynn Berry, Mike Eckel, Maria Danilova, Angela Charlton, Peter Leonard and Mansur Mirovalev