Victory Day: not a day of celebration for everyone

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According to the Russian media, the festivities marking the 60th anniversary of Victory were the biggest international event organized by the Kremlin since the break-up of the Soviet Union. All this cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

The Vedomosti newspaper quotes the Moscow police department as saying that 30,000 police officers and 6,000 soldiers patrolled the streets of Moscow during the days of celebration. Twenty thousand of these police officers were in central Moscow. Movement in the vicinity of the Kremlin was restricted, with access only permitted for people with special passes.

As the Novye Izvestia newspaper noted, “the authorities decided to take out some extra insurance by stationing a police officer at every visible location, ‘for the sake of convenience.'” None of the media were able to find out the exact number of special services personnel involved in Operation Festive Moscow.

These efforts were not in vain: contrary to rumors circulating before May 9, there were no major incidents in Moscow. First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin told Vedomosti that the nationwide crime level dropped by two-thirds on May 9. Novye Izvestia reports: “Prostitutes, homeless people, and other ‘anti-social elements’ suddenly disappeared. Most of Moscow’s streets were shining clean and pleasantly deserted.”

Arriving in Moscow for the celebrations, President George W. Bush was received by Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogarevo residence outside the city. Bush was driven to that meeting along empty streets. Andrei Kolesnikov observes in Kommersant: “The deserted appearance of this city – where unprecedented celebrations of the World War II anniversary were supposed to have already begun – must have puzzled Bush. But President Putin could have reassured him by saying that since it was raining, everyone was staying indoors.”

Indeed, as Kolesnikov points out, the rain didn’t let up – “causing a lot of stress for supporters of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.”

Still, this problem was solved by the start of the military parade. Izvestia observes that Luzhkov “gave the sky an angry look” when he arrived at Red Square, and made a call on his mobile phone. Five minutes later, the rain stopped; then the sun came out, and stayed out all day – much to the delight of the celebration organizers and all the VIP guests.

All the same, the papers are pointing out that not everyone was celebrating.

In Moscow’s Eastern district, 79 members of Russian National Unity (RNE) were detained in advance by police; as the Vremya Novostei newspaper reports, “they were planning some acts of provocation on Victory Day.” Kommersant reports that the same fate befell the youth wing of the Motherland (Rodina) party outside the Latvian Embassy, during an attempt to rally in protest against President Vaira Vike-Freiberga’s presence on Red Square. Besides, the most radical activists of the Red Youth Vanguard and the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) were detained by police “within the framework of preventive measures.”

Even the fairly respectable leftist-patriotic opposition was not permitted to march along the “traditional Victory Day route” (as Gazeta puts it) along Tversakaya Street to Red Square – once again, due to security considerations. The Communist Party marked May 9 with a rally on the square outside the Belarusskii train station, surrounded by OMON riot police. Gazeta reports that Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov made his usual promise to the authorities: “to restore the great Soviet Union and raise the red flag over the Kremlin.” The next speaker, NBP leader Eduard Limonov, demanded Putin’s immediate resignation.

Novye Izvestia says that the most colorful spectacle was provided by “the Orthodox Christian gonfalon-bearers,” carrying “Free Colonel Budanov!” placards rather than gonfalons on this occasion, as well as those RNE activists who remained at liberty. Novye Izvestia provides a vivid description of Barkashov’s supporters – not very strong, but wearing all black, and raising their stylized swastika banners. If anyone ventured to enquire “why the hell there were fascists present at a Victory Day rally, they explained with restrained irritation that they are ‘not fascists, but Orthodox patriots.'” Overall, according to Kommersant, the rally turned out to be fairly boring without the radicals.

And that is precisely what the authorities wanted.

Of course, they wanted much more as well.

According to Vremya Novostei, on May 9 Moscow “felt like the capital of the world.” As everyone knows, 53 world leaders came to Moscow for the celebrations, along with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

On May 8 there was an informal summit of CIS heads of state; the only CIS leader to ignore it was Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who hadn’t managed to reach an understanding with the Russian leadership on withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia.

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova left Moscow straight after the CIS summit. As Gazeta points out, Voronin stated diplomatically that his absence from the Victory Day parade “was not due to any tension in bilateral relations,” while acknowledging that “Moldova and Russia still can’t find any points in common” regarding the Trans-Dniester problem.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko went home on the evening of May 8 as well; the next day, he presided over his own Victory Day parade in Minsk. That parade included 2,500 military personnel and 200 items of modern military hardware (no military hardware was included in the Moscow parade), as well as MAZ trucks and buses, BelAZ tipper trucks, and even Belarus tractors and Polesie harvesters.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, attending his first CIS heads of state summit, returned to Kiev straight after the Red Square parade; thus, according to press reports, the Kiev celebrations began in the afternoon.

As Gazeta points out, this meant that a third of CIS leaders were absent from the Victory parade in Moscow.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the “main event” at the May 8-9 festivities was the visit of President George W. Bush – and President Vladimir Putin “made no secret of that, stepping outside protocol to pay special attention to his guest.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that “despite his personal friendship with Vladimir Putin,” this was only Bush’s fourth visit to Moscow since he first took office. Bush was friendly; he liked the military parade, he thanked “friend Vladimir” for his hospitality, and he enjoyed a ride with Putin in a 1956 GAZ-21 car. Kommersant quotes The Washington Post as saying: “He spent the day in Moscow without uttering a single word in public.”

All the same, according to Russian media reports, Bush did make an attempt to “protect” Putin from the American press.

When a Times reporter asked, “President Bush, why do you think you can still trust President Putin?” Bush replied: “Just behave! Why do you still think I cannot trust him?” (Quoted in Kommersant.)

Kommersant correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov says that when the journalist who asked that question “attempted to explain why, he was not allowed to speak. The American President’s press secretary escorted the guy out of the room.”

So, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it might seem that the Kremlin “can now list Bush’s good behavior among its assets.” Moreover, against the backdrop of constant arguments in the West about Russian democracy, Bush’s “signficant silence” might be viewed as de facto support for Putin’s policy course.

Nevertheless, Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that “the Bush who likes Putin is not the same as the Bush who represents America.” As convincing evidence of that, Nezavisimaya Gazeta points to the itinerary of Bush’s European tour: Riga, Moscow, Tbilisi.

At a press conference in Riga, Bush was asked whether the existence of the independent Baltic states on Russia’s border is in line with Russia’s interests. He answered: “It’s enough to take a look at these three countries. They are peaceful, prosperous countries, good neighbors of Russia, good neighbors for one another and good neighbors for other states.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that Moscow takes a different view: its Baltic neighbor-states are “primarily seen as states that glorify fascism and violate the rights of their ethnic Russian minorities.”

In an interview broadcast on Latvian television, Bush made an even more direct statement: “We will stand with Latvia if a larger country tries to intimidate the people. That’s a great thing about Latvia joining NATO – that the security is now guaranteed by not only the United States but all members of NATO.”

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, the “larger country” is clearly a reference to Russia; but in Moscow Bush made no mention of this – “for obvious reasons.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that there was also some obvious dissonance between the tone of Bush’s statements in Tbilisi and “the atmosphere of goodwill in relations between Bush and Putin.” Bush spoke out definitely in favor of restoring Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, although specifying that this “must be achieved by peaceful means.”

Moreover, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, his description of Georgia as “a beacon of liberty” sounds like an expression of Washington’s unambiguous support for the Tbilisi authorities. Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes: “Mikhail Saakashvili is sure to use this advantage in his efforts to get the Russian bases out of Georgia as soon as possible.”

In an article for Izvestia, Fedor Lukianov, chief editor of “Russia in Global Politics,” describes President Bush as a “political tightrope-walker.”

Lukianov says: “Of late, the Washington administration’s policy on Moscow has resembled a cascade of acrobatic somersaults. President Bush and his team are performing a balancing act with the aim of maintaining normal relations with the Kremlin, while also paying due attention to the areas of Russian policy which are drawing increasing criticism in Congress and the American media.”

According to Lukianov, all we need to do is take a closer look at the situation in which President Bush finds himself, and it becomes clear that he is making every possible effort to avoid a drastic chill in bilateral relations.

It’s important to note, says Lukianov, that Putin’s Russia is not popular in the United States: “neither among Clinton-era liberals who made great efforts to democratize our country in the 1990s, nor among the radical neo-conservatives who are obsessed with the idea of bringing the light of liberty to the whole world.” So Bush, despite his liking for Putin and his “pragmatic” views on Russia, is not free to do whatever he pleases: “Many factors are involved in the process of shaping foreign policy in the United States.”

Thus far, the Bush Administration has had sufficient “common sense to maintain a positive approach even while making the required gestures to Russia’s opponents, who are making themselves heard more and more loudly.” Yet the potential of this approach has a tendency to diminish, and there is some danger that it “may run out just in time for the next presidential election campaigns in Russia and the United States.”

Besides, election campaigns are usually periods of “tougher reciprocal rhetoric.” In America, this will probably mean another round of debates over “Who lost Russia?” In Russia, there will be “complaints about the loss of our erstwhile grandeur.”

However, says Novoe Vremya magazine, while attempting to “re-evaluate the past in a cold-blood manner” on the 60th anniversary of the Great Victory, we’ll “continue to have faith in the progress of the American style,” despite Russia’s “geopolitical retreat” launched in 1991; since “it makes no sense to regret lost opportunities,” rather than trying to take advantage of “newly-acquired opportunities.”

One shouldn’t regret “the morsel which is too hard,” notes Novoe Vremya: “One shouldn’t have hanker for something belonging to anybody else. What’s most important is retaining what belongs to you.”

However, efforts to do all of the above are not always successful.

Duma member Mikhail Zadornov told Vedomosti: “The Kremlin’s main goal was to demonstrate that Russia is part of the global community,” since :the trend for a political isolation of Russia has been increasing in the past several years.” Unfortunately, noted Zadornov, “the celebrations bore some Soviet-era traits, which ought to be removed.”

However, the experts approached by Vedomosti doubt that the Kremlin’s highly expensive efforts to improve Russia’s international image are likely to be successful, since “the leaders who came to Moscow are hardened and experienced politicians.”

As a poll on the Izvestia newspaper’s website showed, Russian citizens also had some mixed feelings about the Victory Day celebrations. Although 60% of respondents reported feeling proud of their country, 22.9% said the festivities were over-emotional, 6.6% were unhappy about the “excessive” security measures, and 10% chose all of the above options.

Nevertheless, Kommersant quotes The New York Times as saying that Vladimir Putin clearly succeeded in “using the anniversary of Victory Day – celebrated as a Soviet and now Russian national holiday – to rally Russians behind what is arguably the Soviet Union’s greatest achievement.”

So at least one of the objectives associated with the celebrations was partially achieved. Then again, this objective was the least costly for the Kremlin.

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