The past week has not been a good one for opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Police in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities forcibly broke up opposition demonstrations and detained a number of opposition leaders.
The actions followed Putin’s speech to supporters at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on November 21, in which he accused domestic enemies of trying to make Russia into “a weak and ill state” and “a divided society, in order to do their deeds behind its back.” In an apparent reference to Other Russia, the opposition coalition headed by former chess champion Garry Kasparov that organized the protest marches in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities on November 24-25, Putin said those who “will now come out into the streets got a crash course from foreign experts, got trained in neighboring republics, and will try here now.” He added, “Unfortunately, inside the country there are those who scrounge at foreign embassies, importune diplomatic missions, count on support of foreign funds and governments and not the support of their own people.” Putin also claimed unnamed former officials who “made corruption the main tool of political and economic competition” were aiming to “gradually restore the oligarchic rule based on corruption and lies” (International Herald Tribune, November 21).
Riot police broke up a November 25 “Dissenters’ March” in St. Petersburg, which had not received permission from the city authorities. Most Russian and Western correspondents on hand put the number of people detained in St. Petersburg at around 150, but St. Petersburg journalist Anton Mukhin wrote on the Ezhednevny zhurnal website (ej.ru) on November 26 that of the 500 protesters that the city’s police estimated attended the protest, roughly 300 were detained. Among those were former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), and SPS leader Nikita Belykh, who was reportedly taken into custody when he tried to give an interview to journalists (Grani.ru, November 25). Both Russian and Western correspondents covering the demonstration reported that police beat protesters with their batons and fists before putting them on buses that took them to police stations (Washington Post, November 25). Among those beaten were members of the banned National Bolshevik Party (AFP, November 25) According to Other Russia’s press service, Maxim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Yabloko party and a candidate in the December 2 State Duma election, and Alexander Shurshev, head of the St. Petersburg chapter of Yabloko Youth, were both severely beaten, with Shurshev winding up hospitalized with a concussion (Grani.ru, November 25).
Among those detained in Moscow – where some 3,000 opposition supporters turned out on November 24 for a “Dissenters’ March” that had received authorization from the city authorities – were National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov and Maria Gaidar, daughter of the architect of Russia’s controversial post-Soviet economic reform program, who heads the SPS’s Moscow candidate list for the December 2 election. Limonov and Gaidar were subsequently released. Kasparov, who was detained when he attempted to submit complaints regarding election-related violations by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party to the Central Election Commission office, was sentenced to five days in jail on charges of organizing an unsanctioned procession of at least 1,500 people against Putin, chanting anti-government slogans, and resisting arrest. According to the Associated Press, two policemen testified at Kasparov’s “hastily organized trial” that they had been ordered before the rally to arrest him (Associated Press, November 25; Moscow Times, November 26).
Kommersant reported that local authorities in several cities – including Samara, Novosibirsk, and Cheboksarakh (Chuvash Republic) – banned “Dissenters’ Marches” and, in some cases, detained local opposition activists on the eve of the planned demonstrations (Kommersant, November 26). In Dagestan, Farid Babayev, a Yabloko candidate for the Duma elections who was shot by unidentified gunmen on November 21, died of his wounds on November 24.
Andrei Lipsky wrote in a piece published in Novaya gazeta on November 21 that despite having “complete control over the electoral process,” the Russian authorities at all levels are increasingly nervous about the December 2 Duma elections and thus ratcheting up pressure on the opposition. At the municipal level, he wrote, officials are desperately trying to ensure a high turnout for United Russia in order to secure, in return, more funds for the “provision of the elementary needs of the population,” while governors, who are appointed by the president, need to secure a strong turnout for United Russia in order to ensure their own futures. Meanwhile, United Russia leaders, Lipsky wrote, are nervous about their future, following Putin’s comments earlier this month criticizing United Russia for lacking any clear political ideology and attracting “all kinds of crooks” but said he had decided to head the party’s ticket for the Duma election “because we don’t have anything better” (Moscow Times, November 14). Putin, for his part, is nervous because the December 2 election has turned into a referendum on his rule and role as “national leader,” meaning that anything short of a large turnout in favor of United Russia will be a personal defeat (Novaya gazeta, November 21).
Whatever the psychological motivations, some observers believe that Putin’s speech, charging that domestic enemies are seeking to weaken and divide Russia, could presage a wave of repression, the way that his speech in Munich last February, in which he accused the United States of trying to impose a “unipolar model” and obliquely compared U.S. foreign policy to that of Nazi Germany, signaled a hardening of Russia’s foreign policy line.
“After the February Munich speech, when Putin made such confrontational statements about the West and the United States, our foreign policy stopped being simply inconvenient and became openly confrontational toward the West,” said Vladimir Milov, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Energy Policy and a former deputy energy minister. “It is completely obvious that Russia switched to open confrontation in foreign policy, and I very much fear that following this speech [on domestic enemies] … we can expect an analogous situation with respect to the so-called domestic enemies; that Russia can expect a series witch-hunts and persecution of those people Putin labeled as political opponents who are disturbing the stability of our country” (“Vlast,” RTVi television and Ekho Moskvy, November 23).