Monday, April 16, 2007

Russian riots follow dissenters' marches

Russia is in turmoil after a weekend of protests in Moscow and St Petersburg turned to riots. Yesterday, police detained dozens of protesters after 7,000 people marched in St Petersburg, On Saturday 9,000 riot police and soldiers were deployed to prevent less than 2,000 activists marching to a central square in Moscow. Police arrested around 200 protesters including the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Kasparov was released after paying a fine of $40. "It is no longer a country ... where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law," Kasparov said outside the court building. "We now stand somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe," he said.

Meanwhile in St Petersburg riot police swung clubs and clashed with opposition supporters before chasing small groups of demonstrators. They beat some on the ground and hauled them into police buses. It was not immediately clear what sparked the violence after the rally. City bosses gave permission for the 90 minute rally in a square on the edge of the city but banned plans to march on to the city government headquarters. Protesters heeded organisers’ calls not to march on the government building but instead to go on their own over the next few days. Instead most protesters went to the nearest subway station where the violence started. Eduard Limonov, head of a Bolshevik opposition party, told the rally, "Yesterday, it became clear that the authorities won't be making any concessions. They have started a war on people”.

The weekend protests were part of a series of "Dissenters' Marches". These marches were called by an umbrella group known as the Other Russia. The Other Russia brings together a rainbow coalition of opposition groups including one led by Kasparov. Kasparov leads the United Civil Front. Other groups include Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, the Moscow Helsinki Group, Worker’s Russia, Institute for Globalization Issues, Centre for Development of Democracy and Human Rights, People’s Democratic Union, Republican Party of Russia and Information Science for Democracy (INDEM).

The Other Russia held an “All Russia Civic Congress” in July 2006. It was deliberately timed to coincide with the G8 summit in St Petersburg. A closing statement stated the conference succeeded in showing that Russia still possesses a civil society capable of defending its rights. It also said that President Putin’s government’s goal is “the complete and unending control of every national resource” which, it warned “can only be achieved by repression and anti-constitutional means based on the destruction of civil liberties and the cleansing of the political field”.

As well as Kasparov, the other leading light in the Other Russia is former premier Mikhail Kasyanov. Kasyanov heads up the People’s Democratic Union. In 2005 he announced his intention to run for president when Putin’s term expires in 2008. Kasyanov has been one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics since he was fired, accusing the president of stifling democracy and mismanaging the economy. Kasyanov served as prime minister for most of Putin's first term. But Putin sacked him in 2004 barely a week before his (Putin’s) re-election claiming the move was aimed at “creating a more efficient government”.

The weakening of democracy in Russia was acknowledged by the 2006 US National Security Strategy which concluded that "recent trends regrettably point toward a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions" in Russia. The document’s pessimism is not shared by President Bush himself. I haven't given up on Russia," he said in a speech in a March 2006 speech at Freedom House, a pro-democracy organisation. "I still think Russia understands that it's in her interests to be West, to work with the West and to act in concert with the West."

But it is debatable whether Putin’s government shares this interest. Putin rules with the concept of “managed democracy”. This is based around three concepts: Prosperity, stability and sovereignty. Putin had the good luck to arrive in power just as oil prices took off. Russia’s economy is booming with GDP growing by over 6 per cent a year, all debt has been paid off and the budget is now in surplus. This has resulted in genuine improvements in living standards. Putin remains a popular leader. Since his 2000 election, he has enjoyed the continuous support of over 70 per cent of his people. Importantly too, Putin has brought stability back to Russian politics after the eccentricities of Yeltsin. He broke the back of the Russian oil oligarchs (Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky and Abramovich) and also reclaimed Russia’s moral status as a world power. It is now the world’s largest producer of gas and, after Saudi Arabia, the second largest exporter of oil.

However the cost of this progress has been the muzzling of genuine democracy. The government has reasserted control over major television networks with little air time available to its critics. Newspapers such as Izvestiya are mouthpieces for the regime. Prominent media critics have been cowered, threatened and silenced. The Duma (Russian parliament) has been neutered and made compliant, and political freedoms have declined. Corruption is pervasive despite Putin trebling the budget of the FSB (post Communist successor to the KGB). Putin’s greatest gift is that he himself lives thriftily thus avoiding the taint of corruption. Instead he can use corruption as an instrument of state policy. Under Putin corruption is both a system of rewards for those who comply with him, and of blackmail for those who might resist. According to one businessman benefiting from Russia’s construction boom: "it used to be called bribery, now it is just called business."

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