Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 64

On March 24, the authorities in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod brutally broke up an anti-government rally using riot police.

The Nizhny Novgorod rally was the third “March of the Discontents” organized by Other Russia, a coalition of opposition parties and groups have united into the “Other Russia” movement to protest the increasing power of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other Russia’s leaders include Eduard Limonov, head of the leftist National-Bolshevik Party; former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now leader of the United Civic Front; and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, now leader of the People’s Democratic Party. The first rally was held in Moscow last December, and the second one took place in St. Petersburg in March. Each time the Kremlin ordered local authorities to ban the demonstration, while the opposition insisted on the constitutional right to have rallies wherever they wanted. The uncompromising stances of both sides led to street clashes between demonstrators and the police during all three rallies.

The Kremlin’s nervous reaction suggests that the Russian authorities fear a united front consisting of left-wing and liberal opposition forces. The opposition demands free elections, an end to the continued growth of payments for housing and utilities, and clamors for higher wages and pensions. This cocktail of demands could easily attract half of the Russian population if the opposition had access to major mass media sources like federal TV channels. The latest Levada Center poll shows that the popularity of Kasyanov, a possible candidate for the presidency in 2008, doubled in March — from 3% to 6% — despite an almost total media blackout. Few, if any, Russians listed Kasyanov as a potential candidate less than four months ago.

The Kremlin understands that the police alone are not enough to dampen the opposition. Therefore, it seeks a counter-ideology to discredit the anti-Putin forces in the eyes of the population.

On March 20, Alexander Dugin, leader of the International Eurasian Movement, held a press conference to announce that the movement would hold an “Imperial March” in Moscow on April 8. This idea was supported by Mikhail Leontiyev, a pro-Putin TV anchorman famous for blaming the United States for the massacre in Beslan, and by two Russian radical nationalist writers, Alexander Prokhanov and Maxim Kalashnikov.

Dugin said that the Imperial March was a reaction to the next March of Discontents, planned for April 14 in Moscow. “The Russian public dreams of marching towards the great state while the orange scum [a reference to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine] wants to take this opportunity away from us.” Using a derisive nickname based on rumors that Kasyanov demanded a cut to ratify any contract with the Russian government, Dugin continued: “Misha Two Percent and Kasparov, an insane chess player, hit our sorest point – Vladimir Putin” (Vek, March 21). At the same time, Mikhail Leontiyev called the Other Russia leaders “scamps who receive money from abroad and who pay fools to take part in demonstrations and complain” (Novy Region, March 20).

But according to Ludmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, “In fact, there are not too many people who can be inspired by the ideas of the Imperial March in Russia, but this demonstration could attract several thousand people only if it has secret support from the authorities” (Interfax, March 20).

The Imperial March is not the only effort to counter the March of Discontents. On March 25, the pro-Kremlin Nashi Movement organized a political show in Moscow called “The President’s Liaison.” That day about 15,000 activists, bussed to the Russian capital from all over the country, spread around the city asking passersby to complete a questionnaire. If a person agreed with the content of the questionnaire, a Nashi activist gave him a cell phone SIMM card that could be used to send messages to Putin. One of the questions in the questionnaire was whether the respondent agreed that moving away from Putin’s cause meant “dark times” for Russia and the seizure of power by puppets of the West and extremists.

Another question asked: “Can you exclude the possibility of a coup or foreign intervention initiated by Mikhail Kasyanov under the pretext of bringing NATO troops into Russia to guard nuclear facilities and oil and gas pipelines?” Those who filled out the questionnaire were also required to choose between “mighty Russia and a colony of the West” (Ekho Moskvy, March 25).

Officials have also tried to depict the opposition as agents of the United States. When the police broke up the Nizhny Novgorod rally, Sergei Popov, deputy head of Nizhny Novgorod region, said that the protest had been “sponsored by the United States and some European countries” (Interfax, March 24).

The ideological standoff of the opposition and the authorities has much deeper roots than just a struggle for votes before the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. The opposition and the Kremlin offer two competing visions of the future. One of them offers democracy and improved living conditions for ordinary people while the other calls for a new Soviet-style empire. Which path the Russian public chooses will be revealed very soon.