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Analysis & Opinion
01.06.10 Rocking The Boat
By Tom Balmforth

Pockets of opposition protests across Russia were crushed amid arrests and beatings yesterday, despite Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hinting on Saturday that they should be authorized. In the Russian premier’s videoed meeting with the St. Petersburg intelligentsia over the weekend, Russian rock legend Yuri Shevchuk gave Putin an uncharacteristic grilling over freedoms in Russia and asked whether the rallies planned for May 31 would be authorized for the first time in many attempts. Putin’s emotional and unpersuasive reply left analysts wondering whether Putin had given the protests his blessing, but yesterday’s police response showed that nothing has changed.

Over 1,000 anti-Putin protestors gathered in central Moscow’s Triumph Square in one of the biggest recent opposition demonstrations to hit the Russian capital. Activists chanting “Russia without Putin” and “We need another Russia” were picked out from crowds and dragged away to buses with caged windows, as protestors chanted “shame” and applauded the arrested. Crowds were eventually dispersed by gas and then separated by ranks of police with interlocked arms, who drove protestors toward the Mayakovskaya metro entrance away from the square.

Police say 130 were detained, although Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the veteran human rights activist and the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said this figure was around 150. “It’s difficult to say how many people were there overall,” said 83-year-old Alexeyeva, a “Strategy 31” stalwart who was there yesterday. “Because of the conditions we were in it wasn’t possible to keep track, but there were a lot more people there than usual.”

The “Strategy 31” rallies, which take place on the 31st of every month that has 31 days, are organized by Russia’s opposition in defense of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution that guarantees the freedom to assembly. Yesterday’s demonstrations (in Vladivostok and Tomsk as well) were denied approval despite Putin hinting last Saturday that rallies should be given the go-ahead.

At a public meeting with St. Petersburg’s intelligentsia, usually a carefully scripted and stage-managed affair, Russian premier Putin was caught off guard by politicized questions designed to put him on the spot. Russian rock legend Yuri Shevchuk, the lead singer of the DDT band and a known dissenter, began his address to Putin: “I got a phone call yesterday, and your assistant, or some such (I don’t remember his name) asked me not to pose any sensitive questions – political ones and so on…”

Putin ruled this out irritably, only to then be challenged over freedoms in Russia and asked whether the St. Petersburg “Strategy 31” rally would be authorized. An emotional Putin parried that the rallies should be sanctioned as long as they do not conflict with other people’s interests, but that really it is the local authorities who decide on sanctioning rallies or not, meaning that ultimately the decision-making is beyond his control. “Putin was evasive, and his response to people who oppose him was not as skilled as usual. He sounded unpersuasive and his words were contradictory. Of course, this issue has been discussed a lot on the Web,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The recording nonetheless was televised nationally and was actually posted in full on the prime minister’s Web site. Analysts speculated that Putin’s responses were meant to be a signal to the local authorities to authorize the protests. But speaking to the Echo of Moscow Radio Station the next day, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, stressed there had been no change of policy.

Yesterday’s St. Petersburg rally, which the former Prime Minister and now dissenter Mikhail Kasyanov also attended, was not authorized, and 50 out of an estimated 100 were detained.

The Moscow rally, the ninth of its kind, was officially blocked because Triumph Square had been double-booked for a blood donation event organized and attended by over 2,000 pro-Kremlin youth group members. Event organizers standing on a 30-foot stage played bass-driven rap and drum and bass, whipped up the crowd between songs with chants of “Russia forward,” “the new generation” and “indifference is callous.”

At one point, a male protester leading a chant of “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Chekhists” through a loud-hailer behind the stage was beaten on the head and dragged away by four policemen holding each of his limbs. Roughly an hour into the rally, Young Russia and Nashi youth groups played the Russian national anthem at full volume, which coincided with an intense spate of arrests and scuffles behind the stage. Several YouTube videos (, entitled “the hymn to Putin’s Russia,” (in Russian) purport to capture the moment, although they appear to have been edited. “It’s a kind of stand-off between the city authorities and the human rights activists. It’s a matter of pride for both not to concede and not to compromise,” said Lipman.

One protestor was led away proudly clutching a blue watering can embossed with a “31” above his head. The prop presumably served as a make-shift blue bucket, the symbol of opposition to Russia’s “migalki,” (black cars fitted with blue lights giving their drivers a carte blanche to disregard the traffic code). “I decided at the beginning of this year to start coming to these things just because otherwise I would have stopped respecting myself. The first one I came to was the January one earlier this year,” said Andrei Dukhonin, a real estate salesman and activist for the Solidarity movement, who has been arrested at two of the rallies so far. “I can come to demonstrations because I don’t work for the state.”

Lipman said the weather was one reason why the protests had been bigger this time round. Yesterday’s sunny day in Moscow with poplar fluff swirling around made for a much better day out for protesters than the depths of January, when they last all came together for “Strategy 31” (only half attended on March 31, days after the Moscow metro bombings).

But the main reason it was busier this time was Yuri Shevchuk’s address to Putin, which had made him like a “hero” for many, said Lipman. “What made a difference this time was Shevchuk. There has been a lot of interest attracted by his meeting with the prime minister. It’s all over the Web in Russia,” said Lipman.
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