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Analysis & Opinion
31.05.12 She Who Cast The First Stone
By Dan Peleschuk

An 18-year-old protester has come to symbolize the intense battle between the Kremlin and opposition forces over the future of mass public demonstrations. As the first person arrested for allegedly inciting violence, she, along with several others, seems set to become a new test subject for the authorities’ harsh treatment of protesters, accented recently by a draconian bill in Parliament that would set sky-high fines for unsanctioned demonstrations. It’s a course, observers say, which may be set for potential disaster.

Alexandra Dukhanina was arrested earlier this week for what prosecutors said was her role in instigating the mass violence that broke out between protesters and the police during the May 6 rally in Moscow. Police officers identified Dukhanina on a central Moscow street last Sunday and detained her, armed with a video of what appears to be her tossing a chunk of asphalt at riot police during that demonstration. On Tuesday, Dukhanina was placed under house arrest until June 6 by the Basmanny Court in Moscow while investigators dig further into her case.

An apparently dedicated protestor, Dukhanina has participated in several major demonstrations, even taking an active role in the coordination of recent events, such as the Occupy Abai demonstration at Chistye Prudy, where she helped to organize the makeshift information center. While there, she said that she and many of her fellow protesters were ready for what they saw as an inevitable crackdown by police on public demonstrations. “But no matter what, we’re going to stand here until the end,” she said on May 14, several days before the protest was broken up peacefully. Now, however, the Moscow State University freshman faces two possible charges: calling for riots and committing violence against police officers, both of which carry sentences of up to five years in prison.

As her fate remains uncertain, so does a proposed bill that would level astronomic fines on protesters for simply taking part in unsanctioned public demonstrations. The current bill, which has already passed its first reading in the State Duma, earlier proposed a maximum fine of around $30,000, nearly 200 times the current standard amount of about $165. Fines for organizers would reach even higher. However, opposition lawmakers, chiefly Ilya Ponomaryov and Dmitri Gudkov of the Just Russia Party, have sought to counter the new bill by offering an alternative.

Drafted by the Committee for Civic Initiatives, a group headed by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the new version proposes a maximum $230 fine for participants and $300 for organizers who break the rules of a sanctioned gathering, and progressively higher fines for damaging property, endangering others, and creating a security risk, according to the Just Russia website. Their efforts appear to have at least partially succeeded, as the Duma committee on constitutional law and state-building considered their offer and lowered the fines to less than half their original amount, or about $9,600, RIA Novosti reported. The bill is set for a second reading on June 5, though even the fines proposed by the committee remain simply unreasonable for the middle-class Russians who typically populate demonstrations.

As part of the larger debate on public protesting in Russia, Dukhanina has perhaps come to partly represent what critics say is the Kremlin’s draconian and unwarranted crackdown on dissent as President Vladimir Putin hunkers down for his third term in office. But she’s not the only one: two others, 36-year-old businessman Maxim Luzyanin and 22-year-old Andrei Barabanov, have also been arrested for allegedly provoking the May 6 riots. Investigators have asked the courts to keep them in custody, claiming both men are flight risks. Ramil Akhmetgaliyev, a lawyer with the Agora human rights NGO, told that the situation amounts to a political show trial, with the court conjuring up weak excuses – such as a well-stocked bank account, in Luzyanin’s case – to keep them in detention. “Having more money does not mean a person will escape,” he said.

There are other signs the government is no longer in the mood for cooperation. Just two weeks before the opposition’s next planned protest on June 12, which marks Russia Day, Moscow city authorities have refused to grant permission for a march down the central Tverskaya Street thoroughfare and along the Kremlin walls. Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov warned that failure to compromise would only make things worse for the Kremlin: “For now, the authorities are unfortunately choosing the path of violence, repression and various kinds of provocation,” he said. “But as history has shown us in many different countries, this always ends poorly for these types of regimes sooner or later.”

Experts agree that the Kremlin’s stubbornness can backfire. According to political analyst Pavel Salin, of the Center for Political Assessments, both the alleged show trials and harsh crackdowns not only fail to frighten people, but actually embolden them. “But the authorities don’t understand this,” he said. “Unfortunately, they continue to operate with zero logic, and they don’t understand that society, which has gone through a fundamental change in attitude, is several levels above them.”
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