The Dissenter March protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Boris Berezovsky’s announcement about plotting a revolution in Russia: is there any connection between these events? Most of the Russian media say there is. Some see this as an attempt to secure a third term for President Putin, some see “the hand of Washington,” and others see the Orange Revolution specter that’s keeping the Kremlin awake at nights. But all the media agree that during the Dissenter Marches on April 14 and 15, the authorities – whatever their real or imaginary motives – did use inappropriate force against the opposition.
The Kommersant newspaper reports that for the purpose of upholding order at the Dissenter March in Moscow (organized by the Other Russia coalition), extra OMON riot squad personnel were brought in from Ryazan, Kaluga, Voronezh, Rostov, Lipetsk, Tver, North Ossetia, Mordovia, Bashkortostan, and even the Marii El republic. The police attempted to decapitate the Dissenter March as soon as it started: one of the first people arrested on Tverskaya Street was Garry Kasparov, leader of the United Civil Front. Other arrests included Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Red Youth Vanguard, Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party’s youth wing, and Da! youth movement leader Maria Gaidar.
The Dissenters attempted to march from Pushkin Square to Turgenev Square along the roads, but few of them were successful. According to the Moscow police department, 170 people were detained (organizers claim that over 500 were detained), 24 of whom have been charged with participating in an unsanctioned event; 54 people required medical assistance.
As Kommersant reports, the Dissenter March in St. Petersburg ended in opposition protesters being beaten up by police, just like their counterparts in Moscow. The OMON riot squad wasn’t even deterred by the fact that Dissenter March organizers refrained from holding an unsanctioned march and confined themselves to a rally, for which they had an official permit. All the opposition leaders ended up in police detention cells. The event’s chief organizer, Olga Kurnosova, never made it to the rally; she was detained as she left her home. Journalists were also beaten and arrested, even though many were wearing special jackets with the word PRESS clearly visible. They were beaten with truncheons just because they were there. Anatoly Maltsev, a well-known photographer with the European Photo Agency (EPA), says he was taking pictures of the OMON squad’s actions when he was struck on the head with a truncheon, from behind.
As Novye Izvestia reports, it was St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko who proposed that journalists should wear special jackets at public events. This was after the Russian March last year, when an OMON officer beat up Interpress photographer Yevgeny Asmolov. According to Novye Izvestia, Kirov Plant director Georgy Semenenko provided the money and the Russian Union of Journalists ordered the special jackets. But they turned out to be a fig-leaf that was ignored by police at the latest Dissenter March.
Novye Izvestia reports that the OMON riot police injured opposition politician Sergei Gulyaev, who was hospitalized with a broken arm, and Yabloko activist Olga Tsepilova, hospitalized with facial injuries.
The Gazeta newspaper quotes Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin: “What I saw on television gave me the impression that some law enforcement personnel had significantly exceeded their authority. I saw blood spilled in the streets. Fortunately, there were no irreversible incidents.”
As Gazeta emphasizes, this is the first time since Dissenter Marches began that Lukin has criticized the Moscow municipal authorities and law enforcement agencies. Lukin promised to monitor the Prosecutor General’s Office investigation and court cases involving the victims.
Kommersant reports that independent lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov addressed the Duma, proposing an official parliamentary inquiry to establish who was to blame for the brutal dispersal of Dissenter Marches last weekend. But this proposal was not supported; the Duma confined itself to establishing an inter-faction working group. Kommersant notes that since there aren’t any regulations defining the powers and authority of working groups, they function on an unofficial basis. Ryzhkov told Kommersant that even this decision is satisfying: “Setting up a working group is better than nothing.”
According to Gazeta, Governor Matviyenko has instructed the law enforcement agencies to analyze the situation, and to take measures according to the law if it is confirmed that police exeeded their authority. She said that cases involving journalists’ rights should receive particularly close attention.
The presidential administration has also responded. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov acknowledged that the law enforcement agencies “over-reacted” to the Dissenter March; but he added that “this only happened in some cases.”
The dispersal of the Dissenter March has been discussed informally at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE Chairman Rene van der Linden said that he considered it unacceptable to use force to disperse the demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg (reported on Newsru.com).
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian delegation at the PACE, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he understands Rene van der Linden’s hardline stance – but described the actions of Dissenter March demonstrators as “an obvious act of provocation.” In Kosachev’s view, the opposition movements deliberately moved their protest into locations banned by the authorities – with the aim of attracting television coverage. Kosachev said that a number of recent events are linked: the release of a US State Department report which is strongly critical of the human rights situation in Russia, Boris Berezovsky’s declaration that he intends to change the regime by force, and the Dissenter March timed for the start of the PACE spring session. “It’s regrettable that the law enforcement agencies succumbed to provocation and used force against the demonstrators,” said Kosachev.
The coincidence of these three events – the US State Department’s report, Berezovsky’s declaration, and the Dissenter Marches – has been noted by many Russian media outlets. Their conclusions don’t always coincide with Kosachev’s opinion.
Semyon Novoprudsky, deputy chief editor of Vremya Novostei, says that Berezovsky’s “incendiary interview” in The Guardian was a “kingly gift” to the Russian authorities.
A few days before the Dissenter Marches, “the most impassioned Russian political emigre” declared that he is giving money to “people close to the president who are conspiring to mount a palace coup.” He agreed that his words could be interpreted as “fomenting a revolution.” Berezovsky added: “There is no chance of regime change through democratic elections. If one part of the political elite disagrees with another part of the political elite – that is the only way in Russia to change the regime.”
Vremya Novostei notes that Berezovsky isn’t merely handing the Russian authorities a trump-card argument for taking harsh measures against dissenters. Novoprudsky says: “He is creating an ideological launching-pad for cancelling or postponing the presidential election. He is playing on the side of that part of the Kremlin elite which seeks to keep Putin in power for a third term at all costs – as the sole guarantor of their political influence and business interests. In other words, he’s reinforcing the positions of the very same people he says he wants to bring down.”
Novoprudsky describes Berezovsky as “an unsurpassed master of political provocation,” noting that his latest interview “encourages the Russian authorities to tighten the screws even more, spread the search for internal enemies even wider, and intensify attempts to discredit any citizen or politician who expresses disagreement with what is happening in Russia.” Novoprudsky concludes: “Ultimately, this is an attempt to remove any and all restraints from the very same regime which our Britain-based rebel claims to be opposing so strongly.”
Gazeta agrees with the conclusions presented in Vremya Novostei about this being an attempt to keep Putin in office, but expresses this in the form of a question: “Is some part of the ruling elite using these methods to persuade Putin to stay on for a third term?”
“No one’s satisfied with quiet, peaceful demonstrations these days,” says Gazeta. It points out that in Nizhny Novgorod last month, “300 protesters turned up, plus 150 journalists: they were met by the forces of law and order, bristling with plastic shields. The event produced some pretty good photographs.” And in St. Petersburg, the city authorities spent a week broadcasting public awareness messages, urging people to stay away from the march. “It was like being told to sit still and try not to think of an elephant.” People went to the march, of course. Thus, the event gained significance and numbers.
And the Moscow events, according to Gazeta, “prompt a wild new idea: what if the authorities really want the people’s rage – the rage of everyone against everyone else?”
Gazeta asks: “Why this odd encouragement of activity for the masses, while the authorities remain completely silent? Maybe the authorities no longer exist, so all we have are political techniques and manipulation of people’s minds?” Or perhaps some faction within the authorities is seeking to “destabilize the situation so much that even television images will make it clear that we have crossed the Rubicon?”
Another theory about these events is that they result from “deliberate anti-Russian efforts, in which the United States is prepared to use any and all figures or forces that can help destabilize the situation in Russia.” This theory is presented in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, arguing that the Dissenter March organizers are really aiming to foment unrest and generate media controversy.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that Berezovsky’s interview is also part of the anti-Russian policy of the United States, along with the US State Department report that promises funding for opposition organizations in Russia. The reason for this is not based on “cold hatred” of Russia among the US establishment; it concerns American business interests. “The Americans simply don’t want Russia to be strong.”
Duma member Viktor Kuznetsov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russia is being subjected to a media attack, intended to split Russia society. And the Other Russia coalition and its allies are playing the most dangerous role in this campaign.
Kuznetsov says: “In terms of measures, methods, statements, and precedents, the Other Russia’s actions are extremely similar to the actions of the Orange forces. This is a repeat of what we’re seeing in Ukraine.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Mikhail Dugin, head of the Geopolitical Evaluations Center: he says that since the United States isn’t capable of bringing any particular party to power in Russia (Russian zociety rejects external management), “it has only one option: destabilizing the political system as such, destroying it as a whole, thus creating the preconditions for a revolution.”
Moskovskii Komsomolets also mentions an Orange revolution in Russia – but says it’s a specter, a phantom menace that’s making the Russian authorities behave like a bull in a china-shop.
The dispersal of the Dissenter March – thus turning the protest into an international event – is a decision that’s very hard to understand. The answers should be sought in political psychology rather than politics, according to Moskovskii Komsomolets: “Putin’s Kremlin is usually known for being extremely pragmatic – but now it’s developed a fixation with the Orange revolution issue. Some people in the Kremlin have lost touch with reality, mistaking an Orange soap-bubble for a real live fire-breathing dragon, and starting to live in an upside-down world of their own.”
Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, argues in Novye Izvestia that the Kremlin’s actions are driven by fear of punishment. He compares the authorities with a five-year-old child who “sneaks out when his parents are having a party and steals coins from the pockets of the guests’ overcoats in the hallway.”
Fedotov says: “As soon as the regular sound of clinking wine-glasses and cutlery, toasts and jokes, is joined by some other sound – the click of a lock, the creak of a floorboard, a telephone ringing – the child’s heart freezes in fear. After all, he knows he’s doing something naughty – something that could get the seat of his pants warmed.”
Fedotov emphasizes that the Russian authorities are in this position now: In their imagination, the Dissenter March is being exaggerated to the scale of Noah’s Flood (just like Berezovsky’s scandalous interview is exaggerated into an attempted coup).
Fedotov points out: “In taking fright at the Other Russia, the authorities forget that Another Russia really is out there. The Russia that’s tired of this endless mockery of the law, common sense, and elementary justice. The Russia that doesn’t vote, and doesn’t approach the police or the courts for help, because it’s convinced (justifiably) that they’re all corrupt.”
The conclusion: “Up until the first blood is shed, that Russia will not rise up. Therefore, Comrade Bosses, you shouldn’t allow matters to reach extremes.”