As Russian President Vladimir Putin played host to the G-8 summit this week, putting Russia on display as a booming, oil-rich economy, a disparate array of opposition groups–from right-wingers at “The Other Russia” forum in Moscow to the “alter-globalist” leftists who attempted to stage a counter- summit in St. Petersburg–rallied to show the world that there are any number of alternatives to Putin’s grand display. But it was hardly the opposition’s finest hour.
With St. Petersburg in the spotlight, various left-wing organizations, spearheaded by the Russian Committee for Single Action (KED) and the Movement for Civil Initiative, had planned a counter-summit complete with seminars, street demonstrations and even a rock festival. At the center was the Second Russian Social Forum, a venue for what organizers said would be “sessions on topics from housing, social and city planning issues, education and healthcare, protection of human rights”–all posing alternatives to existing Kremlin policy.
Like most protest events in contemporary Russia, the Second Russian Social Forum was reined in almost immediately. Some 200 activists–including foreigners–were apprehended by police before they even made it to St. Petersburg and were charged with minor offenses such as swearing in public. One participant from Siberia reportedly had his passport destroyed in the train and was placed under house arrest on that pretext.
By Friday, when the forum was in full swing, what might have been Russia’s most promising protest event had degenerated into a predictable series of arrests and demonstrations, with frustrated participants shouting slogans about democracy and human rights. Following a last-minute order from the city administration, street events and rock festivals were ruled out. No more than 300 people grouped together on the benches of Kirov Stadium. Two dozen tents and a couple of banners proclaiming “Anarchy is the Mother of Order” dotted the field. A series of seminars on the dangers of neoliberal economic policy initially scheduled for Saturday were held instead on Friday because participants found little else to do. “What is this?” asked participant Alexei Ilyushin, apparently dismayed that a famous Russian folk song was to set the tone for the event. “They’re walking eight times around the stadium singing ‘Katyusha‘? How retarded is that?”
Outside of the stadium, the only sanctioned demonstration was a fifteen-minute rally in the center of town, attended by some 400 activists from the Communist Party and radical leftist groups, complete with arrests and beatings by riot police. On Saturday the forum came to a trickling halt as about 100 activists attempted to storm the gates and hold a procession to the Aurora Cruiser memorial, something that was explicitly forbidden by the city authorities. Youths wearing bandannas on their faces (although no tear gas was in sight) huddled with their banners before an iron fence and a handful of cameramen, chanting, “We don’t want to live in cages!” and “Down with capitalism!” A few more people, including foreign journalists, were detained and manhandled at another unsanctioned rally the following day. The forum closed Monday on a characteristic note: City authorities had invited organizers to play a game of soccer–them against the protesters. The authorities won.
Scratch the surface of the state of the weakening Russian opposition, and it becomes clear that an increasingly heavy-handed government isn’t the only culprit. Boris Kagarlitsky, who directs the Institute of Globalization Studies and is close to the organizers, called the counter-summit an “utter failure” that couldn’t rally a considerable crowd because it had been radicalized by marginal groups competing for media attention. “A lot of it was because of the split in the organization committee,” he told me. “Do we want to draw attention to our issues, or do we want to just make noise?” For an organization committee that’s an umbrella for some thirty different movements and, in the words of KED organizer Yevgeny Kozlov, headed by “no single leader,” making noise seemed to be the only option left.
In the end, the counter-summit proved to be a less air-conditioned version of the Other Russia Forum, which was attended by well-established liberal opposition figures like the suave former premier Mikhail Kasyanov, and the slightly hysterical Garry Kasparov of the United Civil Front. Lauded by some observers in Russia as a successful attempt at a reconciliation of various opposition forces, it too failed to “unify” around an alternative. Indeed, what “united” both the Other Russia Forum and the counter-summit in St. Petersburg was that both venues helped the Kremlin put the rowdy multitude of “civil societies” on display to the world.
Both events failed to engage ordinary Russians, who support the current president in general and the G-8 summit in particular. According to a recent poll by the ROMIR Monitoring Center, 73 percent of Russians felt the summit would build up the country’s international prestige. However vital the topics brought up in their forums, the opposition forces seemed to be speaking not to average Russians but to Western media.
More interesting, however, is that the counter-summit alienated one of its most promising constituents–the All-Russian Confederation of Labor (VKT), which held several conferences in St. Petersburg during the G-8 meeting that were mostly ignored by the press. Union organizers, after all, had better things to do than clash with riot police. According to Kagarlitsky, the confederation has some 100,000 members scattered throughout Russia’s provinces. “These people don’t yell about how wonderful the Soviet Union was,” Kagarlitsky tells me. “Instead, they count their salaries. And that’s where you already have a critical mass.”