St. Petersburg and Moscow
At the end of Monday’s anti-Kremlin rally in central Moscow, Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of the Other Russia opposition movement, announced that he and the other organizers had decided against marching out of the designated rally area in Pushkin Square, a move that city authorities had already rejected and that would have led to clashes with riot police and the OMON, Russia’s paramilitary forces.
“There are too many OMON forces waiting for us,” Kasparov said into the microphone. “But the fact that we have decided not to march out of here isn’t our defeat, it’s the Kremlin’s defeat, and that–”
Kasparov’s voice suddenly vanished. The police had pulled the plug on the sound system. Their allotted ninety minutes was up.
Thus ended a surprisingly peaceful weekend of protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow (along with a smaller march in the northern port city of Murmansk). There was a palpable sense of letdown when the rally broke up without any serious incidents, both among protesters–most of them were young and curious, ranging from middle-class bohemians and professionals to left-wing radicals, and many had come expecting to confront The Man–and the unruly swarms of Western journalists, who vastly outnumbered their Russian counterparts and who came with expectations of witnessing the Russian police state in action.
Until this past weekend, there appeared to be an increasingly dangerous trajectory in the Kremlin’s strategy to crush the opposition movement, which seeks to end President Vladimir Putin’s ever-tightening control over the country’s politics and its media. It was a trajectory that seemed to be leading inexorably toward greater bloodshed and violence, perhaps something cathartic and awful, like a Russian Tiananmen Square. Rallies in St. Petersburg in March and April, and in Moscow in April, all featured overwhelming government forces pitted against a few thousand protesters, capped by savage and at times seemingly indiscriminate beatings and arrests.
The one exception was a planned protest last month in Samara, a Volga River city, during an EU summit there. Rather than attack protesters, the authorities allowed the march in Samara to go ahead but arrested scores of activists in the days leading up to the protest and detained the opposition leaders along with scores of Western journalists at the airport in Moscow, thereby strangling the rally in its bed. This “softer” strategy didn’t lead to a quieter reaction: Opposition leaders came off as victims and heroes in the Western press and what remains of Russia’s free media, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly clashed with Putin during the postsummit press conference in Samara. Observers and opposition leaders were left wondering if the Kremlin had intentionally created a PR fiasco, and if it meant that Putin had now decided that he didn’t give a damn what the West thought about him.