Civil protests in Russia take new forms

The mevtion of my article on ITAR-TASS

By Itar-Tass World Service writer Lyudmila Alexandrova

The movement of civil   protests in Moscow and other large Russian cities, which   developed last autumn to have eased somewhat after the   March 4 presidential election, has been gaining strength   again and taking new forms. Last Sunday’s peaceful strolls   of protest along the Boulevard Ring road were clear   evidence of that.

The Test Stroll, organized by critically minded book   authors in effect proved a massive unauthorized street   procession. This time the police displayed restraint – in   contrast to what happened during an opposition   demonstration on May 6. The men of letters succeeded there   where politicians had failed – they held a mass   unauthorized protest procession impeccably, without a   single incident. Experts say there has been a change in   both the tactic and the strategy of the protest movement.   Also, they point to different behavior by the police and   the authorities’ reaction to the events.

The opposition and the police differ in their estimates   of the turnout for the Test Stroll. According to official   statistics, taking part in the procession were up to 2,000   men and women, while the participants claim they were far   more numerous – 10,000 to 15,000. The march by Moscow’s   intellectuals ended in the Clean Ponds Boulevard amid the   improvised camp of civil activists.

The Test Stroll in the company of book authors was   conceived by novelist Boris Akunin as a response to mass   detentions of opposition members on May 6-9, when more than   1,000 people were taken to police stations. Authors Dmitry   Bykov, Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Boris Akunin were   distributing copies of their books and autographs. Among   the participants in the Test Stroll one could see popular   journalists, politicians and musicians.

It’s for several days now that opposition activists   have been using the public park near the Clean Ponds metro   station as their base. The dissenters have disguised the   protest demonstration as round-the-clock open-air   entertainment get-together. The crowd varies 500 to 3,000.   The demonstrators have been taking turns round the clock.

The campers say they are determined to stay in the   Clean Ponds Boulevard for at least another two weeks, until   two protest activists, Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny,   are released after the administrative arrest. On Sunday   both were questioned in the capacity of witnesses in the   mass rioting case.

The director of the Institute of Applied Politics, Olga   Kryshtanovskaya, on May 11 conducted an opinion poll in the   Clean Bonds Boulevard with the aim to find out the age,   social composition and interests of the protesters. The   daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes the expert as saying most   of the campers are university students and young   professionals aged 30. Kryshtanovskaya believes there are   two distinct trends within the opposition movement.   “General humanitarian protest is one. It is true that the   country has many problems, the elections went wrong in many   respects and certain political mistakes by the authorities   are evident. The other part of the opposition is the   nucleus of professional revolutionaries, with well-planned   actions and financial backing. Their slogan is Down with   the Authorities! This is certainly a revolutionary call.   These people are true revolutionaries – Navalny, Udaltsov   and others. They wish a government overturn. But those who   participated in last Sunday’s stroll don’t.”

Any harsh measure by the authorities – and the   authorities will have to act tough – will radicalize the   protests, Kryshtanovskaya says with certainly. “If there is   no dialogue, there will not be anything else. In order to   bring these people together and put them on a normal legal   track a party will have to be created.”

The authorities hope that the interest in protest   activities will fade away, but such expectations are   futile, Kryshtanovskaya told the daily Vedomosti. So far   the authorities have responded with light bites and   ineffective counter-propaganda. “This is a   pre-revolutionary situation,” the analyst warns.

The deputy president of the Center for Political   Technologies, Rostislav Turovsky, believes that the   out-of-parliament street opposition has been trying to grab   and retain political initiative – and it has proved quite   successful in doing so, because the authorities have been   unable to counter it with anything meaningful, apart from   repressive tactics.

At the same time, as Turovsky has remarked, the   Opposition has no clear alternative program. “This is the   opposition’s headache, because the radicals by and large   rely on wholesale denial of the existing regime. This is   political unprofessionalism.” This situation of a vacuum of   content is fraught with certain risks. Experience shows   that in such cases popularity may go over to some radical   or populist-minded political forces, which have not taken   shape yet, but which have vast room for action.

The Clean Ponds Boulevard camp is a response of the   “angry urban class” to the authorities’ crackdown on   participants in the May 6 demonstration some had dubbed a   “march by millions” in advance, says political scientist   Tatyana Stanovaya on the website. The   protesters have no slogans or political demands.

They merely wish to demonstrate with the very instance   of their presence in the Clean Ponds Boulevard they have   the right to assemble peacefully, and do so there and   whenever they deem appropriate without any coordination   with the authorities. Coming to the Clean Ponds Boulevard   is a sort of fashion – people there sing songs, make   friends, talk philosophy, and recite poems.

In the meantime, the federal authorities, she says, are   in confusion. They has been trying various methods of   response to this demonstration, which they see as an   eyesore. And the United Russia fraction in the State Duma   is about to consider a bill that may tighten the rules of   street protests and the responsibility for abusing them.   Unrest during unauthorized rallies may be punishable with a   fine of up to 1.5 million rubles.

“A decision is about to be made to punish the   Opposition with heavy fines, and some most zealous   guardians of the law have been demanding prison terms for   Navalny and Udaltsov. Is there a better way of whipping up   the protests?” Stanovaya asks.

The authorities and United Russia have lost the young   educated urban middle class, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta   quotes political scientist Boris Makarenko as saying. “The   degree and forms of activity of that class will be   changing, depending on reaction by the authorities. It’s   like trying to stop streams of melting snow in springtime.   Put up a dam here, water will find a roundabout way.”

MOSCOW, May 14



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