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Analysis & Opinion
01.11.10 Meeting Halfway
By Tom Balmforth

Sunday’s more or less peaceful protest in central Moscow on the whole ended well for both the hundreds of moderate oppositionists as well as the hundreds of police sent to contain them. The thorn in the side for both was the radical opposition that staged a parallel, unsanctioned rally on the fringes. They weakened the opposition by dividing it, and were a nuisance for the legions of young policemen after they refused to acknowledge government limits placed on the freedom of assembly.

Over 1,000 jubilant opposition protestors demonstrated in Triumfalnaya Square just off Moscow’s busiest high street without getting arrested on Sunday, after the mayor’s office last week gave its blessing to the anti-government rally, in a move unprecedented under ex-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. “I think the meeting went excellently,” said Oleg Orlov, the head of the Memorial human rights office, who was at the protest. New Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin last Monday granted permission for 800 protestors to take part in Sunday’s rally, ending a deadlock between the authorities and protestors who have tried to hold similar rallies for a year and a half.

Official police estimates say no more than 800 turned out, although one activist, Lev Ponomarev, put the figure at 3,000. Orlov was unsure but approximated slightly lower. “There were a lot of people. Two thousand five hundred was the upper estimate. In today’s Moscow that is a fairly big protest,” Orlov said of the rally, which he and many oppositionists are hailing as a “victory.”

The Strategy 31 protestors, who meet on the 31st of every month that has one, have been rallying in defense of the freedom of assembly, enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, for a year and a half. But Sobyanin’s breakthrough approval of the protests, taken at the behest of the Kremlin, say analysts, did not satisfy some oppositionists, who objected to the limit placed on the number of protestors permitted to turn out.

The subsequent split in the disparate opposition movement meant that a parallel demonstration, led by novelist-turned-nationalist radical Eduard Limonov, was held in the same square without government approval, and was broken up. This second, unsanctioned protest descended into chaos, as hundreds of police linked arms to funnel out the melee of protestors chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Down with the Chekists,” who then became mixed up with bemused theater-goers arriving for the seven o’clock showing at the MosSovet theater along with Muscovites emerging from the Mayakovskaya metro station.

Twenty-eight protestors from Limonov’s rally were detained. Half of them are being charged with disturbing the peace, and the other half for stopping the flow of traffic after OMON riot police were forced to pursue and detain a group trying to blockade the Moscow Garden Ring, Interfax reported.

The schism in Strategy 31 between the older opposition group of rights activists and politicians and the younger, more radical opposition has provoked a mixed reaction from within the movement. Speaking at the sanctioned rally, liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov lamented the appearance of the fracture after the authorities had given protestors cause for optimism by approving the rally. “Nonetheless, to the joy of [Vladimir] Putin and [Vladislav] Surkov, some problems have arisen,” Nemtsov told protestors. “We have no right to give them gifts such as a schism.”

Orlov distanced himself from Limonov’s group, which sees its old co-protestors as traitors, but he did not condemn them. “It’s their choice – it’s not ours,” said Orlov. “They chose a different path… I personally think that if the authorities behave sensibly, then how can we not welcome such behavior? This does not mean that we are abandoning our demands or think that they are not infringing Article 31 – they are. But this is our victory,” said Orlov.

Despite the colossal police presence which impeded angry passers-by going about their business, many of the sights common to previous rallies were gone, as protestors brandished anti-government banners that are usually confiscated or destroyed. At least three protestors arrived on Triumfalnaya Square wearing masks of Putin crying or Putin with a black-eye, in a Halloween wink to the mysterious bruising under the Russian prime minister’s eye discerned by journalists at a press conference in Ukraine last week.

The protest described by the The New York Times as “humble” was attended by the new head of the Kremlin human rights council Mikhail Fedotov and Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the opposition Left Front movement. A number of smaller similar rallies took place across Russia in Vladivostok, and at a larger one in St. Petersburg, where roughly 70 protestors were detained, Reuters reported.
But the main focus of the media has been on the schism that has allowed Moscow officials to distinguish between activists and “provocateurs.” “They sanctioned the meeting because among the organizers there is a group that wants to defend Article 31 and not simply to provoke the police. Up until now there was a combination of human rights activists from the intelligentsia and provocateurs. The provocateurs used to dominate,” said Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy in the State Duma.

It is not the first time there have been fractures within Strategy 31. The Moscow metro bombings at the end of March this year saw many of its ranks, including key Strategy 31 founder and queen of Russia’s rights movement Lyudmila Alexeeva, forgo the protest, choosing instead to lay flowers at the sites of the explosions. Limonov still appeared on Triumfalnaya Square. “The task for the likes of Limonov and the Nationalist Bolshevik Party [banned in 2007], which is actually a fascist party, has been to provoke the Interior Ministry into clashes to see whose will is stronger. They have tried to express their will by conquering the streets,” said Markov.

But this time, the fissure in Strategy 31 was irritated as a result of Sobyanin’s decision to give the go-ahead, rather than the other way round. Orlov said various things had come together for the authorities to allow the protest. “Firstly, it is thanks to civil society’s consistent and incessant pressure, which has grown larger under the Strategy 31 movement, which when it began, no one really had heard of.”

The higher profile the movement has garnered, the more embarrassed the authorities have been when the protests were brutally broken up, he said. When Luzhkov was unceremoniously booted out of the mayor’s seat by President Dmitry Medvedev, he served as a handy scapegoat for the authorities to timidly put to bed one and a half years of confrontation with the Strategy 31 movement, even if it was not Luzhkov alone who was responsible for brutally breaking up the protests. “Against the background of the power shuffle in Moscow, it would have been stupid to continue opposing the strategy as they had done. The authorities simply realized that such action has no prospects,” said Orlov. Allowing the protest was then made easier with the appointment of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin’s ex-chief of staff, who is widely seen as the Kremlin’s man in the key Moscow constituency.

So will the next rally, scheduled for December 31, be approved? Markov said it hinges on the opposition. “They will allow the next one if they can agree with those who are going to defend Article 31 and not going to compete with the authorities,” he said.
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