Nerves ahead of renewed Russian protest

MICHAEL BIRNBAUM
Last updated 14:39 06/05/2013

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Peter Tsarkov, a Russian opposition organiser, was anxious as he readied for a protest scheduled today, the first major demonstration in this capital city in many months.

Exactly one year earlier, Russia's political opposition was on the rise and aiming for new heights at a demonstration on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration.

Instead, authorities cracked down, ending their tolerance toward the thousands of Putin opponents who presented him with the greatest challenge to his rule since he took over the country in 2000.

Dozens of those arrested at the May 6, 2012, protest were still making their way through Russia's glacially slow justice system.

Now Tsarkov says his phones are tapped, so he and his associates communicate through more secure methods on the internet. Many of his allies are under investigation. There are draconian new penalties for staging unauthorised rallies. And the sense of possibility that sent Moscow's long-quiescent middle class to the streets last year has largely evaporated.

"With the help of repression, the authorities managed to scare people," Tsarkov said one recent afternoon at a trendy, dimly lighted Moscow cafe where he frequently broke off the conversation to discuss plans for the protest with his allies.

"They will be passionate, those who are not afraid."

With tanks and military jets rehearsing in Moscow in recent days ahead of a Thursday commemoration of the end of World War II, few here doubt that power remains firmly in the hands of the authorities.

It was not always so. Protests electrified Russia's two largest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, in December 2011, after frustration with electoral fraud blossomed into broader discontent with corruption and the country's leadership.

Thousands of people, many from the educated middle class, took to the streets for the first time to voice anger.

The culmination came at the end of that month, when tens of thousands packed a long street in Moscow, despite bitterly cold temperatures, to demand fair elections.

The protests ranked among the biggest since the fall of communism. For a moment, Russia's leadership seemed unsettled.

Top officials vowed to enact anti-corruption measures, even as they refused to back down from parliamentary elections widely derided as falsified.

By spring 2012, protests had spread into the provinces as local reform candidates challenged mayors from the Putin-affiliated United Russia party. The efforts achieved mixed success, but it was apparent that the potential for broader discontent existed.

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Then came the fateful protest a year ago. Putin was hours away from his presidential inauguration, as he returned to Russia's top office after term limits forced him to take a break as prime minister for four years.

As thousands of protesters crowded into central Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, clashes between police and protesters erupted. Each side blamed the other for the violence. By the end, hundreds of protesters were detained and a new era in the opposition movement had begun.

"Provocations during the action are acts of hooliganism, which must be punished," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency at the time.

He said he would have been happy if the police had been harsher and, according to a tweet from Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev, later told a legislator that "protesters who hurt riot police should have their livers smeared on the asphalt".

The protest was followed in the weeks and months afterward by a series of actions that put a chill on opposition activity.

Sweeping new legislation set penalties for unauthorised protests at up to NZ$11,000.

Seventeen protesters were prosecuted for purportedly attacking police officers at the May 6 protest; one was sentenced to 4.5 years in jail, and many others remain in custody.

Anti-Americanism, too, brought back Cold War memories as Putin and his associates accused the United States of having a hand in the protests.

The activities of institutions funded by the US government, such as the US Agency for International Development, were restricted. Then

USAID was abruptly kicked out of the country. Opposition leaders were targeted for any association with foreigners.

And, perhaps most significantly, authorities brought embezzlement charges against opposition leader and blogger Alexei Navalny, who has declared his presidential ambitions and is seen by many analysts as the one opposition figure most likely to be able to unite the anti-Putin movement's often-fragmented groups.

Navalny denies that he embezzled US$500,000 from a timber company, and he says the charges are politically motivated. He faces up to 10 years in prison and says he expects to be convicted. The trial started last month.

Even a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between two night-and-day opposition leaders abruptly ended this year. The very public relationship between leftist street activist Ilya Yashin and Russian TV personality Ksenia Sobchak, frequently described as the country's Paris Hilton, was for many a symbol of mainstream Russia's embrace of the protest movement. But in February, Sobchak announced that she had married an actor, not Yashin. Her role in subsequent opposition activity has been subdued.

The problem, analysts said, has been translating street-level energy into actual political change.

"We see a desert of opposition strength in terms of leaders, in terms of platforms," said Georgy Bovt, a columnist and political analyst.

"They appeared almost incapable of developing almost any coherent platform that could attract any significant number of people."

A small opposition rally held in Moscow on Sunday only served to reinforce the disunity within the protest movement, with some leaders saying that the event only sapped energy from the demonstration planned for Monday. But they acknowledged the frustrations of the past year.

"People got a little disappointed when they saw after these big events that nothing was happening," said Tsarkov, the protest organiser.

"They came out, they protested, and no one listened to them. So, now, they do not know what to do."

- WASHINGTON POST/ BLOOMBERG

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