A Pyrrhic victory for the Nizhny Novgorod municipal authorities


“Citizens of the Russian Federation have the right to assemble peacefully, unarmed, and to hold assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” – Constitution of the Russian Federation, Article 31.

The latest Dissenter March was disrupted in Nizhny Novgorod on March 24. The law enforcement agencies implemented Operation Fortress, while the municipal authorities organized a children’s arts festival surrounded by thousands of police.

Novaya Gazeta reports that the Dissenter March was planned as a protest against the municipal government’s actions: housing and utilities reforms, destroying historic buildings in the central city, high-rise development. The Dissenter March was also meant to be a demonstration in favor of free elections.

The Dissenter March was organized by the Other Russia opposition coalition: including the United Civil Front led by Garry Kasparov, the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) led by Eduard Limonov, and other movements.

According to Vremya Novostei, the Dissenter March drew 50 to 100 people, although at least a thousand had been expected initially. The reason for the low turnout was very simple: most of the dissenters were unable to assemble at the appointed hour due to numerous police cordons. According to unofficial estimates, there were between 3,000 and 20,000 police (brought in from several regions) on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod that day.

This was the third Dissenter March. At the first event, held in Moscow in December 2006, around 1,000 demonstrators gathered in an officially-approved area, closely watched by several thousand OMON riot police. At the second event, held in St. Petersburg on March 3, the protesters disregarded the city government’s ban and gathered in the central city. They were met by police using batons. Over a hundred people were arrested after a large group of demonstrators broke through a police cordon into the city’s main street, Nevsky Avenue.

An article in The New York Times (translated at Inopressa.ru) reports that police left nothing to chance in Nizhny Novgorod. The authorities reduced the protest to almost nothing even before it got started.

City bureaucrats rejected the event organizers’ application to march along Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street in the city center. They proposed that the event should be held on Lenin Square instead, on the opposite bank of the Oka River. The organizers declared that they would go ahead with the march as planned.

On March 12, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street was closed off for road repairs – construction work approved two years ago, according to municipal government spokeswoman Larisa Kyruleva. A week before the march, the municipal authorities announced that an arts festival and a parade would be held on the same day, celebrating the City of Masters and the Year of the Russian Language. An organizer of these festivities, Liubov Shmolnina, said that these are annual events held to highlight the work of students at the city’s technical institutes.

In Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, journalist Alexander Goltz points out that the security and law enforcement agencies might have used President Putin’s book (“In First Person”) as an instruction manual. Goltz says: “I suspect that all the examinations at FSB and Interior Ministry training academies include questions on Vladimir Putin’s approach to operation methods. And there’s one paragraph the graduates learn by heart.”

Goltz quotes this description of KGB methods from Putin’s book: “We operated from concealment – to avoid showing any signs of our involvement, God forbid. Let’s say a group of dissidents intends to hold some sort of event in Leningrad, timed for the anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth. St. Petersburg dissidents tended to use dates of that kind for their events. They also liked the birthdays of Decembrists. So let’s say they’re planning an event – and inviting foreign diplomats and journalists, in order to draw the international community’s attention. What should we do? We can’t just disperse them – no orders to that effect. So what we do is organize an event of our own – a wreath-laying ceremony, at the exact location where the journalists are supposed to be. We’ll call in a crowd from the regional Party committee and the unions, surround the area with police, and turn up with a band playing. We lay the wreaths. The journalists and diplomats stand around watching this and yawning, then go away. Once they’re gone, we remove the police cordons. All right, anyone can approach the area. By then, no one is interested in what happens there.”

And now, says Goltz, the FSB is implementing the sage advice of its senior comrade to the best of its ability.

The police called their action plan Operation Fortress. The Kommersant newspaper points out that the security and law enforcement agencies usually announce operations of this nature to “repel armed attacks on targets of public significance.” For examle, Operation Fortress was declared in 2004 when terrorists seized hostages at a school in Beslan, and in 2005 when guerrillas attacked the city of Nalchik.

One of the event organizers, Nizhny Novgorod human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievsky, told Novye Izvestia that the police operation consisted of three parts. First: preventing any protesters coming in from other cities to attend the march. For this purpose, police monitored all train stations and roads leading into Nizhny Novgorod.

Second: preventing protesters from reaching the event location. Several rings of police surrounded the place where protesters were supposed to assemble. In addition to police officers, the dissenters were also greeted with four armored vehicles, three water cannon, and a helicopter hovering overhead.

Third: detaining the organizers of the unsanctioned rally.

Moreover, rumors were used as an effective preventive measure in fighting the dissenters.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the security services of several enterprises told employees that hundreds of skinheads would gather in Nizhny Novgorod on March 24, so it would be a good day to stay indoors. Secondly, a rumor was started about a Gay Parade in the city center (leaflets promoting this fictitious event were posted in many locations).

Novye Izvestia reports that at midday on March 24, a few dozen young people and pensioners who had managed to get through police cordons and reach the square started chanting: “Bring back free speech!” The protesters attempted to start a march along their planned route – from Gorky Square along Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street. They were immediately intercepted by three police trucks. People in camouflage surrounded the march, grabbed the protesters, and shoved them into buses.

Many media reports noted that all this happened in full view of several dozen children, gathered for an arts festival surrounded by OMON police. Loudspeakers were playing a patriotic song: “How the Motherland Begins.”

Among the people detained by police were some Russian and foreign journalists. Novaya Gazeta reports that they included a Rossiya Television cameraman, Reuters and Associated Press correspondents, a New York Times photographer, an Ogonyok magazine journalist, and a Novaya Gazeta special correspondent.

According to the Nizhny Novgorod regional police, 29 people were charged with civil offenses for attempting to hold an unsanctioned protest called the Dissenter March (reported on Newsru.com). There were 102 arrests during the unsanctioned protest, including 25 on Gorky Square itself. Police said that 22 of the arrested people admitted to being members of “radical organizations.” Police said that 12 journalists were detained.

The figures provided by protesters differ from the police figures. NBP spokesman Alexander Averin told Kommersant that 90 people were arrested from the NBP alone, and estimated the total number of arrests at 300.

It’s worth noting that the Dissenter March in Nizhny Novgorod went ahead with hardly any of its organizers present. According to Kommersant, local NBP leaders Ilya Shamazov and Yuri Staroverov were detained by police the previous day and questioned on terrorism charges; they were taken to Saransk. Human rights activist Oksana Chelyshev said that the two men are accused of distributing a book called “The Russian Terrorism Cookbook: A to Z.” Garry Kasparov’s aide Marina Litvinovich was stopped by traffic police, who spent seven hours inspecting the tinted windows of her car.

Writer Zakhar Prilepin, another of the Dissenter March organizers, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he had great difficulty leaving his home that day: some sort of adhesive had been poured into the lock of his front door, so he had to break the door down. But even though he managed to get outside, Prilepin was unable to attend the protest; he was arrested on his way to Gorky Square.

Kommersant notes that none of the Other Russia’s leaders were in Nizhny Novgorod that day. NBP leader Eduard Limonov told Kommersant: “We didn’t plan to go there. This was a regional event, a grass-roots initiative. We simply expressed support for our comrades.”

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Marina Litvinovich said it’s wrong to assume that “the leaders should attend all events.” She maintains that “there are many independent people in the regions who support the Other Russia, and they are perfectly capable of organizing and holding marches on their own.” Litvinovich said: “We helped with preparations for this march, and the leaders also helped, but this doesn’t mean that the leaders abandoned their Nizhny Novgorod comrades.”

Vremya Novostei reports that after the demonstrators were dispersed, the journalists who had not been detained were addressed by Sergei Potapov, deputy governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. He said: “What is happening in Nizhny Novgorod today cannot be called a organized event – it’s merely a group of people disturbing the peace.” According to Potapov, “the event didn’t draw as much interest as its organizers promised, but it did interfere with the relaxation of ordinary citizens.” In conclusion, Potapov denounced those who “feed off money from abroad” and praised the “efficient work of police and fine training of the OMON squad.”

Denis Bilunov, executive director of the United Civil Front, told Kommersant: “The Nizhny Novgorod authorities won a victory. That much is indisputable. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory. All of Nizhny Novgorod is in shock: innocent people were beaten and arrested in the center of the city, in broad daylight. Even media outlets that don’t support the Other Russia have spoken out in defense of the demonstrators – not to mention Western newspapers and television channels.”

Marina Litvinovich told Kommersant: “The authorities behaved stupidly and crudely. Their actions drew a great deal of attention to an event that could have taken place quietly.”

Political analyst Marat Gelman agrees: “The Nizhny Novgorod authorities were scared by the success of the Dissenter March in St. Petersburg. But they didn’t stop to consider that the St. Petersburg march took place during an election campaign. The Nizhny Novgorod event was sure to be dull – but the actions of the authorities really livened it up.”

Valentina Buzmakova, a political analyst from Nizhny Novogorod, told Vedomosti that if the march had been permitted, it would have passed unnoticed; but now the opposition activists can boldly claim to be martyrs – after all, the authorities are turning them into heroes.

The Other Russia is planning its next events for April 14 in Moscow and April 15 in St. Petersburg.

“We’ve learned a lot from the Nizhny Novgorod experience,” Denis Bilunov told Kommersant. “We’re going to have a serious talk with the Moscow and St. Petersburg authorities. We won’t give up the idea of holding the march in the city center, but neither will we allow our people to be struck by OMON police batons. The authorities of Moscow and St. Petersburg need to understand that if they repeat the Nizhny Novgorod scenario, they’ll disgrace themselves in front of the entire civilized world.”

Meanwhile, the Nizhny Novgorod events have already drawn a response from America. As Novye Izvestia reports, the US State Department released a statement on March 26 saying that the Americans are concerned about “the ability of Russian citizens to exercise their right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and peaceful protest.” The dispersal of the Dissenter March is described as “an example of the use of force and the Russian government’s over-reaction to a peaceful assembly of Russian citizens.” US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on March 27 that the American government condemns the suppression of the Dissenter March in Nizhny Novgorod.

That same day, some of Russia’s leading human rights and civil rights activists sent an open letter to Presidential Human Rights Council Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova and Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. The 27 signatories include For Human Rights movement leader Lev Ponomarev, Moscow Helsinki Group leader Lyudmila Alekseyeva, and Andrei Sakahrov Foundation Chairman Sergei Kovalev.

The letter says: “We believe that this cynical and provocative violation of vital civil rights calls for an unprecedented measure: convening a joint meeting of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Expert Council and the Presidential Human Rights Council.”

Valentin Gefter, director of the Human Rights Institute, told Novye Izvestia: “This is an entirely inappopriate obstruction of all liberties prescribed by the Constitution. Moreover, huge amounts of tax-payers’ money are spent unnecessarily on these political campaigns.”

Opinion polls indicate that most citizens believe the opposition has a right to hold rallies and demonstrations, and the authorities shouldn’t ban them.

Interfax reports the results of a poll done by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center in March: 75% of respondents said that opposition movements have the right to organize demonstrations, while 11% said they do not. And 64% of respondents said that the authorities should not ban opposition protests, with 21% saying the authorities do have that right, and 15% uncertain.

According to the Levada Center, 65% of respondents do not support the idea of police using force to disperse unsanctioned rallies and demonstrations; 19% take the opposite view, and 16% are uncertain.

Meanwhile, the authorities appear to regard the use of force as one method of “reshaping” protesters into loyal citizens who “want to do good for their country.”

Izvestia quotes Alexander Konovalov, presidential envoy for the Trans-Volga federal district: “In my view, participants in the much-discussed ‘dissenter’ events can be divided into two categories. The first – a very small minority – are the kind of ‘dissenters’ who take exception to being excluded from the business sector or the political mainstream. The second – the overwhelming majority – are ‘dissenters’ who can’t even clearly articulate the exact target of their dissent, because they’re mostly normal, sensible young people who only want to do good for their country and themselves.”

Well, what did you think the OMON squads and police were for? To maintain public order? No – they are there to prevent people from entering the “mainstream.” Besides, their batons can help “sensible young people” realize that they’re not dissenters at all. Then they can go and “do good” by joining a pro-Kremlin youth movement called Nashi (Our Own) – it’s far less hazardous to one’s health.