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Analysis & Opinion
07.12.11 Wag The Dog
By Andrew Roth

For the third day in a row, opposition protestors went out on the streets Tuesday night to voice frustrations over allegations of election tampering and ballot stuffing that will give the leading party a slight majority in the coming Parliament. Yet this time, they met a well-organized counter-protest put on by several Kremlin youth groups, including members of Nashi, Young Guard and Steel, who easily drowned out the protestors and cheered on security services who rounded up and detained close to 200 opposition protestors. With many key figures in prison and the leading opposition political parties keeping their distance from the protests, commentators are worried that the opposition may lose steam before it even gets going.

A series of protests and counter-protests yesterday kicked off during the day, when Nashi members gathered in Red Square to voice their support for the ruling party. Toward the evening, as temperatures fell below freezing on Revolutionary Square across from the historic Bolshoi Theater, Untied Russia activists celebrating the party’s tight victory gathered to listen to speeches from leading party figures.

Yet the real focus of the evening was on an opposition rally planned at Triumfalnaya Square, the traditional meeting point for Russia’s Strategy 31 rallies (held on the 31st day of the month) and now a fenced-off construction site. Yet close to 6:30 in the evening, as opposition protestors exited the metro and came to the square, they were outnumbered and outmaneuvered by several Kremlin youth groups pounding drums, drowning out their anti-administration slogans. Police pushed opposition protestors through a gauntlet of youth agitators chanting: “Russia, Putin, Russia, Putin.”

It quickly became clear how much better organized the pro-government supporters in the crowd were. Many of the youth had been bused into the city (with parental consent) to participate in the counter-protests after more than 4,000 liberal protestors came to Monday night’s “Return Honest Elections” protest. “We came out tonight to support our party’s victory and to show that most Russians truly support Putin,” said Viktoria, a 16-year-old from Lipetsk, a city about six hours drive from the capital. She, along with 600 other youth activists, had met early in the morning, taken buses into the city and would be returning to Lipetsk overnight. Local media had reported that some of the Nashi youths were paid to take part in the events, but Viktoria denied that she or any of her friends received compensation.

The arrests of opposition leaders are clearly taking their toll. On Monday night, Solidarnost youth coordinator Ilya Yashin and blogger Alexei Navalny, widely credited as a leading figure in the post-election criticism movement, were arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying police orders. Appeals from both were denied today by a Moscow court. Last evening Parnas head Boris Nemtsov and Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin were arrested by the police, along with 250 other demonstrators.

“No, there are no leaders here,” said 20-year-old Alexander, a student and teaching assistant who was standing in a crowd of oppositionists losing a shouting match to a troupe of Young Guard members waving teddy bears. “They’ve pretty much locked up everyone, there’s nobody in charge and we don’t have a plan for what to do.” Fifteen minutes later, OMON riot troops tore through the crowds of oppositionists, arresting some and cordoning off the rest of the square for the evening.

Oleg Kozyrev, an influential blogger close to the opposition, noted that the political parties that regularly oppose the Kremlin, including the Communist Party, Just Russia and even Yabloko, had so far approached the protestors “carefully,” and had balked at throwing their full support behind the oppositionists. “On Monday night at the protests, you only saw representatives for these parties, but you didn’t see [Just Russia head Sergei] Mironov or [Yabloko head Grigory] Yavlinsky on stage. These parties work with the Kremlin too, and they’re not ready to give their full support to the opposition,” he said.

With dwindling numbers, the continued arrests mean that the opposition may expel its strength and manpower on loosely organized protests: another unsanctioned rally is planned for this evening on the same square, and Solidarnost has organized yet another rally for this Saturday. A Facebook group for the event has more than 16,000 confirmed attendees. “Last night, they acted too early, in my opinion,” said Kozyrev. “They don’t have enough people to really make an impact yet.”
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