Sunday, December 14, 2008

Russia: Freedom and thuggery

A day of "Marches of Dissent" in Moscow and St. Petersburg has been marked by massive police action, including about 90 arrests in Moscow and 10 in St. Petersburg and the cordoning off of two squares by Moscow police.

According to CNN.com:


A spokesman for Moscow City Hall told Interfax [the rally organizers] had been offered places to hold a rally, "but they again deliberately staged provocations and called on their supporters to attend unauthorized events."

This is, of course, a load of B.S. The organizers of the rally, the Other Russia coalition, had legally applied for permission to hold the rally at central locations in downtown Moscow (Triumph Square and Pushkin Square). Instead, they were offered "alternate locations" in godforsaken places. For those familiar with New York geography, it would be a bit like an organization wanting to march down 5th Avenue and being offered an alternate location in Washington Heights. It should be noted that The Other Russia tried repeatedly to negotiate a compromise with City Hall, to no avail.

[More: A correction is in order. The alternate location offered to The Other Russia was Bolotnaya Square -- literally meaning "Swamp Square" -- which is, in fact, fairly close to the Kremlin. The organizers' objection to this location was that it's relatively unpopulated, away from the main flow of the crowds in downtown Moscow, and would impede their goal of "interaction with the people." Bolotnaya is more a park than a square, and serves mainly as a hangout for young people and a spot for fire shows.]

Those arrested included fifty retired generals (who had joined the protest in the vain hope that the police would not have the nerve to arrest armed force veterans) as well as Roman Dobrokhotov, the brave young man who interrupted Dmitry Medvedev's Constitution Day speech in the Kremlin the other day.

A few dozens dissenters (50 according to the Associated Press, 80 or 90 according to reports in the independent Russian media) were able to hold a brief march in an alternate Moscow location that was not disclosed in advance, blocking off Sadovaya Street for a while.

In St. Petersburg, where the city authorities allowed a rally but not a march, things went more peacefully, though harassment of opposition activists (including, in one case, a beating that left the victim hospitalized) is still reported.

It is often said that the liberal opposition in Russia has no base, and to a large extent that's probably true. Still, the government's actions show that it's afraid of the opposition broadening its influence. Those actions, moreover, are not only thuggish but dumb. Suppressing the rallies draws more attention than letting them happen unmolested.

Speaking of thuggery, a remarkable (and truly disgusting) act thereof took place on December 12 in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where 100 to 200 opposition activists (including chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov) gathered for the founding congress of a movement called Solidarity.

According to a BBC report:


A pro-Kremlin youth movement, Young Russia, set off smoke bombs outside the conference hall. Some wore monkey masks and taunted delegates by tossing bananas at them.


But the BBC omits any mention of antoher stunt by members on one of the pro-government youth movements that specialize in harassing opposition activists: releasing live sheep, clad in shirts and caps with a Solidarity logo, outside the conference center (apparently to make the point that the conference attendees were "sheep"). Three of the sheep died for unknown reasons (perhaps due to being roughly tossed from the bus that brought them in). Eyewitnesses say several others had broken legs. A video made by opposition activist Oleg Kozlovsky captures a part of the outrageous event. (Warning: video contains brief images of dead animals.)




Will the thugs be prosecuted for animal abuse? Don't hold your breath.

More: On its website, The Young Guard claims that it was not behind the stunt with the sheep, and that it approves of the "political content" of the action but deplores animal abuse. Its site also features a video that purports to rebut allegations that the sheep were abused. Of course, this video -- apparently shot by people associated with the stunt -- shows only that some of the sheep were unharmed and in no way disproves Kozlovsky's video.


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