Protests in Russia: The Real Story

April 20, 2007 Topic: AutocracyCivil SocietyDemocracySociety Region: RussiaEurasia

Protests in Russia: The Real Story

The true composition and goals of last weekend’s protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg did not make it into the American media’s reports. The real picture is far less sanguine.


The heavy-handed response by Russian authorities to last weekend's demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg is just another illustration of a tightening-up of the Russian political space. A Jeffersonian democracy Putin's Russia is not. Just the other day the leader of the newly-created Just Russia opposition-yet pro-Putin-party, Speaker of the Council of the Federation Sergei Mironov, suggested extending Putin's term and reminded us all that according to a recent public opinion poll, 69 percent of Russians are in favor of keeping the president in power, even if it would require changes to the constitution. Putin so far has firmly rejected this possibility, but informed sources in the Kremlin suggest that discussion of how to keep Putin as a dominant figure is growing, whether it would require amending the constitution to permit him to stay president or finding some other arrangement that would allow him to stay in charge.

It is perfectly appropriate, and indeed necessary, not to whitewash Russian domestic practices, as President George W. Bush once did. What is not appropriate, however, is to accuse Putin and his government of all kinds of terrible deeds-often providing highly misleading information in the process-just because he is supposed to be undemocratic. And that is clearly what happened with coverage of last weekend's protests in much of the mainstream media in the United States. The Wall Street Journal editorial page-which believes that Vice President Dick Cheney is a wise statesman, John Bolton an effective diplomat and Paul Wolfowitz a model anti-corruption reformer-has predictably adopted the cause of their regular contributor, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was one of the leaders of the opposition marches. Mr. Kasparov was a great chess player. He is also a man of courage and determination. But anyone familiar with his career in politics, and as a matter of fact, in chess long before it, would know that he has a strong propensity for theatrics and artificial confrontation. Quoting Mr. Kasparov as a dispassionate commentator on his own struggle, as TheWall Street Journal editorial page did, is unpersuasive.


But, being persuasive is in the eyes of the beholder, and editorial pages by definition are entitled to their opinions. Not so the news pages. In the case of The Washington Post, news stories regarding the April 14 and 15 events in Moscow and St. Petersburg were written as if they were coordinated with the notoriously anti-Putin attitude of The Washington Post editorial page. In their April 18 article, "Kremlin Says Riot Police Overreacted", by Peter Finn, both the text and the photographs present a highly misleading picture. The photographs show Garry Kasparov appealing to the menacing-looking police officers. It also shows the police in anti-riot gear overwhelming a long-haired, bespectacled young man. And talking about the organizers of the marches, Mr. Finn refers to Garry Kasparov and former-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov-and nobody else. He does not mention at all that another organizer-and a key ally of Mr. Kasparov and Mr. Kasyanov-was Eduard Limonov, leader of the nationalist and militantly anti-American outlawed National Bolshevik Party. As the photographs accompanying this article show-and these pictures come from, an online anti-government publication to which Mr. Limonov is a columnist-a significant, and the most assertive, part of the demonstrators marched under the Nazi-style banners of the National Bolshevik Party, where the hammer and sickle replace the swastika. And some of the demonstrators did not just march, according to the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya used to work before she was murdered last fall. In a number of instances they also attacked the police, who were trying to block their path when they took an unauthorized route.

When the Russian government was deciding how to respond to last weekend's marches, they had to take into account what had happened at the March 3 demonstrations of the same coalition in St. Petersburg, where Mr. Limonov's militants overran police lines and roughed up some of the officers. In Mr. Limonov's own words on that occasion, "the activists of the National Bolshevik Party have fully justified our hopes. They really were on March 3 the avant-garde's strike battalion, a hot shell, in all confrontations the first and most militant." Limonov added that in addition to their own flags in St. Petersburg, they were marching under the black, gold and white banners of the Russian empire, which Mr. Limonov's party wants to recreate. He talked about the spirit of "revolution" and put Moscow authorities on notice that they better not interfere with the April 14 march if they wanted to avoid the same assault to which police were subjected in St. Petersburg on March 3. Mr. Kasyanov and Mr. Kasparov apparently came to the conclusion that almost nobody is bad enough not to be an acceptable ally against the Putin government. Traditional liberals with strong democratic credentials such as Yabloko and the Union of the Right Wing Forces (SPS) refused to cooperate with Mr. Limonov.

That still would not justify a crackdown against peaceful demonstrators and would justify even less the tendency of the Moscow city authorities to tightly control where the opposition can meet and march, often, as I have witnessed myself in the past, with transparently false excuses such as closing the street for repairs for several hours just to make an opposition march impossible. Police violence there certainly was, but to put things in perspective, Mr. Kasparov was detained and released several hours later with a fine of $40. Mr. Limonov was also detained for a number of hours, but has not been fined so far. Both he and Mr. Kasparov were summoned to appear before post-KGB Federal Security Service officials. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was protected against the police by his own security detail. One assumes that if detaining him would be a priority, it could somehow be arranged.

Why the police overreacted this time, as President Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has acknowledged, to the relatively small demonstrations of a few thousand people at most is anybody's guess. Perhaps it can be explained partly by a concern of how far Mr. Limonov and his militants would be prepared to go if allowed the freedom to move around Moscow. Perhaps there was a sentiment typical in Russian security agencies that not doing enough is more dangerous vis-à-vis one's superiors than doing too much. Perhaps some in the Russian government were provoked by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky's statements on the eve of the march that he was providing funds for a revolution, which was supposed to start precisely with marches like those that Mr. Kasparov, Mr. Kasyanov and Mr. Limonov were organizing in Moscow. And quite possibly some in the Russian government saw the protests as a welcome opportunity to show that might is always right in Russia and any resistance, particularly violent resistance, is hopeless and will be crushed at the outset.

This is not a pretty picture just as the violent clashes between police and protesters in Genoa over the G-8 and in Washington at the World Bank and IMF were not pretty by most accounts. Some overreaction clearly took place, but I still wonder whether a demonstration in Berlin with neo-Nazi symbols appealing to recreate the Third Reich would generate the same kind of an outcry as in the case of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Actually, there is no need to wonder; we all know the answer.

Dimitri K. Simes is publisher of The National Interest and president of The Nixon Center.