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Analysis & Opinion
04.02.09 Rallying For Support
By Sergei Balashov

All they wanted was a discussion, but all they got were fists and clubs. Following last weekend’s Dissenters’ Day, Russia’s opposition insists that the crackdown on dissidents is intensifying, making it virtually impossible to speak up and hold protests against the government.

“We have to get more and more cunning,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, the coordinator of the Oborona movement and a member of the executive committee of the Other Russia. The opposition coalition did a fairly good job coming up with new ways to deliver its message, but the message itself has so far failed to resonate with the people.

Last Saturday, Russia saw the same old protests, but in a different shape. The Dissidents’ March has long since evolved into a brand that stood for the demonstrations held by the opposition forces against the ruling regime, personified by now Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin. This time the Other Russia, a coalition uniting the most decisive opposition forces, announced the Dissidents Day on January 31.

The change in name brought with it a change in tactics, due to the authorities’ unwillingness to cooperate, as requests for permission to hold marches have been regularly denied under the pretense of potential threats to public security. The latest such attempt came in December, and even though the request to hold a demonstration on the Triumfalnaya Square was denied, the leaders of the Other Russia Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov said that it would take place anyway. And so it did, leading to yet more clashes with the militia and resulting in a number of arrests and beatings.

“The risks we are taking are twofold. Firstly, it is impossible for people to hold a march in Moscow, but when we do, we put those participating at a serious risk. It has gotten much harder and the authorities are resorting to the roughest means to stop us,” said Kozlovsky.

The protesters opted to gather in small groups in different parts of town and travel via the metro while shouting protests directed at the government and its helmsman Putin. The reactions were different. Some of their fellow passengers joined them in chanting anti-Putin mantras; while the militia was taking on those they could locate and muster enough force to overwhelm. It is difficult to estimate the number of participants, which has been put at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000. They were confronted with 5,000 servicemen assigned to maintain order.

The authorities usually downplay the events held by the opposition. They are portrayed as political outcasts, while their actions enjoy little coverage in the media, which is often negative. Protesters are also denounced as radicals, mostly owing to the fact that one of the coalition’s member organizations, Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, has been officially labeled as extremist and banned. A number of party members including Limonov have either served time in penitentiaries, or are currently imprisoned.

But this time the signs point to the fact that the Putin-headed United Russia party, which enjoys a commanding majority in the State Duma, took the event seriously. The counter measures that were taken were not limited to the usual intrusion of the law enforcement agencies.

Saturday was also marked by pro-government rallies organized by United Russia, particularly one at the Manezhnaya Square in the heart of Moscow. Around 5,000 pro-Kremlin activists participated, most of them coming from local affiliates of the Young Guard, United Russia’s youth arm. The decision to show support for the government, Putin, and President Dmitry Medvedev was weighed and taken in mid-January, at a party meeting attended by First Deputy Prime Minister and United Russia’s chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov. The rally enjoyed thorough coverage on state-owned national television channels.

This countermove organized by the Kremlin was embraced by the opposition and even treated as a quasi-victory. “It is obvious that the state has to react by holding its own rallies, they endeavor to show that the majority is behind them. The competition is heating up and it is good,” said Kozlovsky.

The contented seemed to have a slight edge over the discontented, yet being outnumbered doesn’t seem to bother the latter. “You can’t force people to come to opposition rallies, while they are rounding their people in,” said Kozlovsky.

Many of those who participated in the pro-Kremlin rally were escorted to the Manezhnaya Square by buses bearing labels of United Russia’s local branches. An editorial published on the Young Guard’s Web site asserted that the goal was to “get outside before the Orange and pseudo-Orange bastards do,” an obvious reference to the so-called Orange revolution in Ukraine in late 2004.

The aim of the opposition’s demonstrations has been to deliver a message and let people know that there is a different point of view from the one they get through most of the federal media outlets. The more the Other Russia is mentioned in the media, the better, whether the coverage is negative not. “We are portrayed as terrorists and extremists, but people who have seen their salaries and quality of life go down don’t care, they’ll just see that there is a different perspective on things. They will have the chance to choose between two sides,” said Kozlovsky.

The economic data shows that demand will most likely keep growing, together with Russia’s economic woes. The Echo of Moscow radio station conducted both online and telephone polls, asking the respondents whether they were more likely to join anti or pro government rallies. Seventy Eight percent of those reached by telephone said that they would rather speak against the government. Online respondents were even more unhappier with the state’s policies, as more than 89 percent said that they would rather partake in anti-government rallies.

The data provided by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) was less dramatic, but it still speaks to the fact that agitation is growing. All of VTsIOM’s social ratings that reflect the nation’s content with the economic situation and expectations showed modest growth late last year, following a sharp decline. But the opposition, regardless of its political stance, is failing to provide the inspiration the population is looking for.

“Neither group gets overwhelming support from the nation. The opposition has been sending political messages. They’ve been focusing on abstract political slogans like calling for Putin to be ousted. People are hoping someone would stick up for their rights; they want stability, higher earnings and they want food. If someone covered those issues, that would be in high demand,” said Pavel Salin, an expert at the Russian Center of Political Trends.

The Other Russia seems to agree. “I’d say the first thing that happens is the support for the government starts to shrink, people are lost and disoriented. But they have to understand that since the policy of highly favorable economic environment conducted over the years led to the economy getting toppled by the first wind puff, something has to have been wrong,” said Kozlovsky.
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