'Democracy' in Russia: Don't try talking back

The Baltimore Sun

Moscow -- Last week, as Russians buried Boris N. Yeltsin, many were reminded of the dramatic passage when Yeltsin discarded the authoritarian Soviet state in favor of capitalism and democracy. It also reminded them of the years of chaos and confusion that followed. That troubled period led Russians to embrace as president Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB chief with a stern hand.

Now, some here fear that under Putin the revolution Yeltsin instigated is going full circle, bringing Russia back to a state where dissent is smothered and overwhelming power is wielded from the top.

Nowhere else in the world does democracy look the way it did in Moscow earlier this month, when as many as 9,000 riot police and troops -- some in camouflage, with truncheons, helmets, shields and a clear go-ahead to crack down -- beat back a peaceful anti-government protest.

At least 170 people and possibly as many as 600, including old men and young women and the chess champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov, were arrested during the April 14 march. Many were pushed, shoved, hit, dragged and beaten. A member of the National Bolshevik Party ended up in a hospital, unconscious for two days. A Japanese journalist was knocked to the ground after a blow to the head.

The scene -- a nonviolent rally met with an extraordinarily large, and at times frighteningly aggressive, police force -- spoke to the unwillingness of the Putin government to brook any opposition at a time when its grip on power is as strong as it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.

And, in advance of December parliamentary elections and a March presidential vote, it suggested to what lengths the state will go to prevent not only the kind of populist uprising that toppled corrupt, Soviet-style regimes in neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine, but any uprising at all.

The disproportionately large response also got to a fundamental flaw in the way the democracy trumpeted by Putin "works" here: The government feels free to take whatever steps it wants to counter those brave enough to challenge it with no visible consequence.

After the march, an independent lawmaker in the Russian parliament, Vladimir Ryzhkov, began gathering complaints, bolstered by photos and video, to send to the general prosecutor. The governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko, a Putin supporter, called for an investigation.

But, in the past, such challenges have generally led nowhere.

The political and media criticism of the massive force used to put down this month's demonstration and a similar event in St. Petersburg the next day was dismissed by senior federal officials, and the public appeared largely indifferent.

The "threat," presented in Moscow, was an attempt by a coalition of opposition groups called Other Russia to rally on Pushkin Square, a popular spot for demonstrators of all stripes, after city authorities denied the coalition's request for a permit. Another group, this one favoring the Kremlin, already was planning an event there, they were told.

And so, while that event went on unimpeded across the street from the statue of Pushkin, who stood towering and alone at the center of a normally bustling square that had been cordoned off and was surrounded by police and police trucks, the clashes began.

Marcher, journalist, bystander: It didn't much matter. Merely being there meant you were a threat.

Aleksandr Kolosov, a young member of the National Bolshevik Party, which has been banned by the government, had traveled from Kazan, in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, for the rally. He raised the party's red flag, depicting a hammer and sickle, above a McDonald's across from the square. When he came down, he was beaten by special forces and left unconscious on the ground, said Aleskandr Averin, a party spokesman.

"We were preparing a peaceful demonstration," Averin said after the march, the day after Kolosov regained consciousness. "We told our people not to yield to provocations on the part of the authorities. The fact that the demonstration gathered over 10,000 riot police shows that the authorities are in a panic. They're afraid of the opposition coalition."

A pack of journalists swarmed around Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister to Putin and leader of Other Russia who has said he will run for president next year in a race authorities will ensure he has no chance of winning. He tried to speak, but determined troops moved in, their arms locked. The knot of people swayed precariously back and forth. But for all the bodies crushing in on him, Kasyanov would have fallen to the ground.

"What's with the press conference here?" shouted one of the troops. "Arrest them all! F---ing journalists or not!"

The protesters headed on foot to another square a mile away, where Other Russia had permission to rally. They set off a flare that emitted an orange stream of smoke. "Russia without Putin! Down with a Chekist government!" they yelled, using the name of the predecessor to the KGB.

The march itself, like most opposition events here, was neither impressive nor, on its own, remarkable; far more so was the resistance the marchers met along the way. The rally too was underwhelming. The day could have ended there. But later, outside the Presnenskaya police station -- where Kasparov, head of the United Civil Front movement, was held and fined the equivalent of $39 on a charge of shouting anti-government slogans at an unsanctioned rally -- his supporters were beaten by police and dragged inside by their hair, Human Rights Watch reported.

Opposition leaders, who have been largely mute, ineffective and ignored, hoped the international attention drawn to the violent and disproportionate confrontation at the rallies might help focus opposition to the government.

"I think it's a clear demonstration of the weakness of the regime," Kasparov told reporters. "Because if the regime is so comfortable and enjoys the massive support -- 50, 60, 70, 80 percent -- if everybody is behind the regime, nobody cares about any protest, then there's no need to bring troops from all over Russia to confront a few thousand of the members of the 'radical' opposition."

Putin didn't utter a word about the march, or the police response to it, despite denunciations from the European Union and Washington. A Kremlin spokesman defended the force, saying troops were simply trying to preserve law and order and "repel the provocations of ultra-radicals." The Interior Ministry said officers had acted "correctly" and "professionally."

The day of the march, the Russian president was in St. Petersburg, watching fighting of a different sort -- a martial arts tournament ---with the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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