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Analysis & Opinion
01.09.10 Blighty 31
By Tom Balmforth

Russian anti-government protests took place in London for the first time on Tuesday, when dozens of Russian emigres gathered outside the Russian embassy in Western London and chanted for freedom. Back in their homeland, over a hundred Russians were detained in the various country-wide “Strategy 31” rallies. As parliamentary and presidential election campaigns loom next year, the protests in foreign cities are key to winning support from Western leaders, protesters say. It is hard to imagine them having an impact, but four EU lawmakers from the human rights commission did attend the Moscow rally for the first time yesterday.

LONDON/ On Tuesday some 50 Russian emigres and exiles gathered outside the Russian embassy in London for the first time to open up a new front in the Russia-wide “Strategy 31” anti-government protests. “We want to show politicians who are running Western countries that they are mistaken when they try to negotiate with Putin. He is a bandit and a gangster,” said Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch who was forced to leave Russia when he fell out with Putin at the beginning of his first term as president. Berezovsky then pointed to a banner calling Putin a “terrorist” involved in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in November of 2006 on British soil. “We know that according to Scotland Yard’s evidence, Andrei Lugovoi is most likely a murderer,” he said.

Alexander Litvinenko’s widow Marina, Russian telecoms tycoon-turned-refugee Yevgeny Chichvarkin, and Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident and writer, were also among the participants in the first “Strategy 31” protest of its kind in the UK capital. “It is time for the world community to raise its voice in support of brave Russian democrats and in condemnation of the Kremlin lawlessness,” read a leaflet handed out at the demonstration. “Today we have come to the Russian Embassy to demand: ‘Respect your own Constitution’.”

Every 31st of the month that has one, Russia’s fractious opposition meets across the country to exercise its freedom to assembly, enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, even though the group is seldom given permission to gather. Some 400 protestors gathered in Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow on August 31, despite being denied official permission to assemble, allegedly on the grounds that a new underground car park is being built on the site.

None of Moscow’s 11 “Strategy 31” protests have ever been officially sanctioned. Yesterday some 70 protestors were detained by police to “boos” and shouts of “shame” from fellow protestors. Two thousand people assembled in the square underneath the Vladimir Mayakovsky statue in central Moscow, the opposition Web site reported, although city officials said the figure was really 400, with 300 journalists alongside them.

In an interview with the Russian business daily Kommersant, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday endorsed aggressive police responses at demonstrations and said that people gathering to protest without having gotten permission from the authorities should be “whacked on the head.”

The protests in Moscow were attended by four European Union lawmakers from the human rights commission, who condemned what they called a “violation” of human rights. "This is an amazing way of dealing with democracy, shocking," Thijs Berman, a Dutch lawmaker for the EU, told The Associated Press.

“Every time, the meetings in Russia are being dispersed more and more fiercely,” Yevgeny Chichvarkin told Russia Profile. “Next year is the run-up to the elections. If there is no freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, then for the next 12 years (two more presidential terms) there will be ever more encroachments on property rights and less freedom. Business will be even worse. Unfortunately, in Russia a neo-Stalinism is on the rise. I want to live and work in Russia, but I can’t because they will just lock me up on trumped-up, materially-motivated charges,” said Chichvarkin.

Opposition leaders and activists Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, Sergei Udaltsov, Eduard Limonov, and Konstantin Kosyakin were all detained and a further 50 were arrested in St. Petersburg. City officials claim that Triumfalnaya Square will not be reopened earlier than 2012, effectively ruling out the possibility of protests being sanctioned there until that date. The presidential elections are slated for March 2012.

Asked whether rallies staged in Western cities would have any tangible impact, Berezovsky said “of course.” “I’ll say it again: Putin’s regime relies on criminal money which is kept in Western banks, and so if today Western leaders seriously take it upon themselves to trouble the regime in Russia, then there is a very effective way to do this, or at least to confront this regime,” Berezovsky told Russia Profile.

In London, the rally in front of the Russian embassy was attended by Gerard Batten, a deputy in the European Parliament representing the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident who came to protests in Kensington in West London from Cambridge, recalled that August 31 this year marks the 30-year-anniversary of the founding of Poland’s Solidarity movement in Gdansk. Russian news Web site quoted an ironic observation from Bukovsky that modern Russia has become more democratic than it used to be, but not by far: “Nowadays you get locked up for three days for protesting instead of three years, as it was back in Soviet times.”

Organizers said that protesters will meet again in London for the next Strategy 31 rally on October 31, but not in front of the Russian embassy, which is too small a space on the pavement.
The source
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