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Scheduled Russian Protests Become Political Theater

  • James Brooke

For every protester in Moscow, there was one journalist and at least two riot policemen. But that did not stop police last weekend from arresting about 60 protesters in front of clicking camera shutters.

Like clockwork, opposition groups demanding freedom of assembly held demonstrations in about 10 cities across Russia on July 31. During the past year, on the last day of each month with 31 days, protesters have rallied, drawing attention to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which proclaims the right to public assembly.

To artificially repress turnouts, city officials in Moscow and St. Petersburg routinely deny rally permits, then allow competing events on the squares chosen by demonstrators.

Last Saturday, the city held a noisy stock car and motorcycle rally at the planned demonstration site.

In addition to the din, the city surrounded the area with hundreds of riot police, sending a clear message to passersby of the price for attending an unsanctioned rally. Then, journalists were treated to the spectacle of riot police herding and dragging dozens of protesters into police buses - only 1.5 kilometers from the Kremlin.

Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov believes the government is more afraid of a wildfire among the Russian people than the forest fires currently ravaging this drought-stricken nation.

Still angry about his arrest at Saturday's protest, he told VOA on Monday: "The government is scared of everything. They are scared of the opposition," he said. "Instead of putting out fires, they send riot police to the square."

Twenty years ago, Russia's leaders, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dimitri Medvedev, were young adults when street protests grew out of control and their world fell apart. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, communist governments seemingly carved in granite fractured overnight.

More recently, about five years ago, street demonstrations swirled into so-called color demonstrations, toppling pro-Kremlin governments in three former Soviet Republics - Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

A domestic politics analyst for the Carnegie Center in Moscow, Nikolai Petrov, believes the Kremlin worries a small hole in the authoritarian dike could lead to disaster.

In the background, Russia's economy went into reverse last year, shrinking by eight percent. At current recovery rates, in 2012 Russia is to re-attain its economic levels of 2008.

"There is growing potential for social unrest and as the crisis is continuing, it is more complicated for authorities to keep the image of them taking care of everything," said Petrov.

Looking at the election calendar, Russia's rulers know they must soon go to voters to win extensions of their hold on power. Parliamentary elections are to be held in December 2011, and presidential elections in March 2012. Opposition figures, largely politically marginalized, complain that Russia's electoral playing board is heavily tilted in favor of the ruling United Russia party.

Last week, President Medvedev signed a vaguely worded bill allowing preventive detention for people that police believe are going to commit crimes. Other bills under consideration by Russia's legislature, the Duma, would give the government greater powers over the Internet and would ban people with previous convictions - even minor ones such as traffic violations - from organizing political protests.

A recent poll by the Levada Center, an independent group, indicated that only one quarter of Russians have even heard of the Article 31 rallies.

Russian Academy of Sciences researcher Olga Krishtanovskaya studies Russia's political elites. She cited two reasons for tiny turnouts for opposition rallies.

First, Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev are "pretty popular."

Second, she says there is the fear factor - 'fear of the consequences, of being beaten."

With this carrot and stick strategy working fairly well, political analysts predict that August 31 will be a re-run of July 31. Journalists and riot policemen will outnumber protesters. Riot policemen will swoop in and break up the protest, trampling signs calling for freedom of assembly.