Democracy à la russe

The brutal suppression of peaceful protests says much about the dangerously unfettered mood in the Kremlin

The Economist | April 19th 2007

SHORTLY after noon on April 14th, Russian riot police—known as the OMON—dragged a young man holding a bunch of flowers off the pavement near Pushkin Square in central Moscow. As he was thrown into a van, he braced his feet against the doors, to cheers from the crowd, but to the evident ire of the police. The doors were repeatedly slammed against his legs. An officer who climbed inside then appeared to beat him.

The thousands of soldiers and police who mustered in the streets for the day gave Moscow an air of war. They came to quash a protest by Other Russia, a disparate coalition of President Vladimir Putin’s critics. When a small group bypassed the cordons around the square and began shouting “freedom”, the OMON rushed in. Copies of the constitution that the group had been carrying were trampled; Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion, was pulled from a restaurant. The OMON beat everybody nearby, including journalists, with truncheons and fists. And they arrested people indiscriminately, among them the man with the flowers, a group of transvestites and even a small boy.

The excuse for all this was that the authorities had denied permission for Other Russia to rally in Pushkin Square. That refusal was itself one of the gnawing, pseudo-legal methods used to harass Russia’s meagre opposition. The claim was made that a fake pro-Kremlin youth group had lodged an identical request only moments before Other Russia did. A handful of counter-protesters duly appeared on a roof, where they let off flares and insulted those below; the police did nothing. A few nationalists also gathered later in the day, with posters showing Jews clutching severed heads of Russian babies and making Nazi salutes.

There had been grim pre-emptive warnings about the treatment that “illegal” protesters could expect, which were amply fulfilled. As a gritty snow fell, a few hundred tried to march to Turgenev Square, where a meeting had been sanctioned, chanting slogans such as “Down with Chekist power” and “We need another Russia”. Mikhail Kasyanov, once Mr Putin’s prime minister, now a critic, was jostled; his bodyguards were arrested. A small peaceful group was intercepted by the OMON. An old man tried to save an old woman from arrest; a dozen club-wielding men viciously attacked both. Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of parliament whose party and seat are both disappearing under new political rules, advised everyone to go home.

The thousand-odd who managed to reach Turgenev Square were surrounded by soldiers. When the time allowed for the meeting expired, they were driven off. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Mr Putin, vainly read extracts from the Russian criminal code to an OMON officer. He and others were forced into a metro station. Later Mr Kasparov was ludicrously convicted and fined for shouting anti-government slogans. Supporters and journalists who gathered outside the police station were beaten again.

The next day the action moved on to sunny St Petersburg, where Mr Putin himself first learned his trade in the KGB. Gazprom’s plans to build a tower, and the exclusion of Yabloko, a liberal party, from a regional election, had contributed to an unusually large protest there in March. This time, the authorities were better prepared. As in Moscow, several would-be participants in Other Russia’s meeting were detained in advance. Only around 1,000 gathered for a suffocatingly policed demonstration. “I believe Putin is the most dangerous criminal in Russia”, read one man’s placard, which bravely specified his name and address. “I love you, OMON”, said another.

The feeling was not reciprocated. As in Moscow, reinforcements were summoned from outside, perhaps because they would be less squeamish about pummelling the locals. “Are you going to beat us all?”, an old woman asked an officer in battle gear, as protesters were funnelled away from tourists on Nevsky Prospekt. Shortly afterwards they did. When a group reached Vitebsky railway station, the OMON blocked their path, banged their riot shields and charged, skull-cracked and arrested at random. People waiting for buses and drunks sleeping on benches were caught in the frenzy. Eduard Limonov, the leader of another banned organisation, was arrested.

The Kremlin says that its Other Russia critics are insignificant, and in a way it is right. Even were they not denied access to television (newspapers and radio stations who interview them also risk prosecution), the part-Jewish, part-Armenian Mr Kasparov and his allies would not command much support. Ordinary Russians can be stirred by tangible worries such as welfare reform, but for most of them freedom is about foreign holidays and a new television, not politics. Still, last weekend’s excesses matter because of three things they reveal about the regime.

First, the old Soviet neurosis about public meetings has been stoked to paranoia by Ukraine’s “orange revolution” of 2004, which some in the Kremlin saw as a Western-sponsored coup. Since dissent must reflect foreign meddling, they see Other Russia as a Western stooge, part of a covert operation to destabilise the country. As with so many authoritarian rulers, they may be unsure how popular they are.

Second, ahead of next year’s presidential election the Kremlin is set on intimidating any opponents into quiescence, whatever the cost to Russia’s reputation. Some may also want to send a message to foreign enemies, including exiles in London such as Boris Berezovsky.

Yet Mr Putin is not Stalin. Nobody was killed at the protests, though hundreds were arrested and dozens hospitalised. But the third lesson is that the ruthless paranoiacs who run Russia are utterly unfettered in what they choose to do. Parliament is unlikely to investigate the huge cost of the gratuitous mobilisation. Suborned courts convicted innocent people of imaginary offences. The scant coverage on the main television channels made no mention of the man with the flowers or the brutalised old couple, and called those who demonstrated “ultra-radicals”.

Category: Russia