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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Neo-Soviet Attack on Peaceful Meeting of Opposition

The New York Times reports that Vladmir Putin's crude thugs descended on a peaceful gathering of opposition leaders in classic Neo-Soviet style. One would not think it possible that images like this could emerge from Russia less than two decades after the collapse of the system that practiced the same tactics and destroyed the country, but Russia is always capable of new lows. If you can look at this photograph and fail to vomit, you are probably a lost cause where democracy or simple human decency are concerened.

MOSCOW, July 11 — The Russian security officers, in plain clothes, arrived in the late afternoon at a hotel where a pro-democracy conference was being held, witnesses said.

They swiftly seized four members of a political movement opposed to President Vladimir V. Putin, handcuffed them and rushed them away. Then they turned on a German magazine correspondent who tried to photograph the arrests. One of the officers snatched his camera and left with it, too.

Hundreds of advocates of civil society and opposition figures opened a two-day conference here on Tuesday, protesting the authoritarian streak that they say defines Mr. Putin’s Kremlin and its hold on the Russian state. The Russian state — predictably, the participants said — demonstrated precisely some of the behavior that the opposition had assembled to protest.

Those attending the conference, held in advance of a meeting of the leaders of theGroup of 8 industrial nations scheduled to begin in St. Petersburg this weekend, called themselves "The Other Russia."

They said their ideals — including free elections, respect for opposing views and human rights and fair distribution of public wealth — were a counterpoint to Russia’s recent political course. And they said they hoped to urge the leaders of the seven other nations in the group to adjust their foreign policies and put pressure on Mr. Putin to loosen his hold.

The conference mixed prominent figures from Soviet times, including two veteran human rights campaigners, Lyudmila M. Alekseyeva and Sergei A. Kovalyov, with a younger generation of advocates, including a former prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, and Garry Kasparov, the chess master and opposition political figure. All of them have become harsh critics of Mr. Putin and his rule.

Their list of grievances was a familiar but timely reflection of the broader debate about how to influence the Kremlin, and about whether, issue by issue, Mr. Putin and his circle are best confronted or engaged.

They spoke of Russia’s police abuses, manifest corruption, arbitrariness of law, restrictions on the news media, crackdown on private organizations and centralization of wealth and power around the Kremlin and its loyal elite. They decried the chilling brutality that has accompanied the wars in Chechnya.

“We are gathering together to fight for the triumph of rule of law in our country,” their public statement read. But even as they released it and speakers were taking turns on the stage, the tensions between Russia’s beleaguered public opposition and the government were evident on the margins.

Participants said more than 40 of their members had been arrested throughout Russia while traveling to the conference here or to St. Petersburg for the Group of 8 meeting. Security officers snatched the four opposition members from the entrance of the Renaissance Moscow Hotel. Mr. Kasparov said the four — three men and a woman who are members of the National Bolshevik Party — had been kidnapped.

The protests and the police actions were ignored by Russian news programs, which are securely under the Kremlin’s sway.

Other subplots played out as well. Senior Russian officials, irritated that Western diplomats had been invited, had obliquely warned the embassies here not to take part.

Igor I. Shuvalov, the Kremlin’s senior liaison to the Group of 8, said last month that if foreign governments were represented by senior officials, it would be seen as “an unfriendly gesture.” A Kremlin spokesman made a similar remark.

But when the conference began, senior officials from Western governments were present. One, the British ambassador, Anthony Brenton, even took the stage. He said that “criticism is as important as a competitive economy” to a functioning society, and noted that Britain remained involved in the development of Russian civil society and private nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s

The United States was represented by two senior diplomats: Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

Neither addressed the conference. They said they had come to Russia with a larger portfolio of issues and had meetings on other subjects planned with the Russian government.

Their remarks, in an interview with five Western journalists, mixed concerns about elements of the Kremlin’s rule with reminders that the United States and Russia had a range of shared interests and areas of productive cooperation.

“This isn’t a totalitarian country,” Mr. Fried said, adding that 20 years ago, during Soviet times, an opposition event like The Other Russia would have been held in secret. “Or in Helsinki,” Mr. Lowenkron added.

But their presence carried an implicit message of support for a wider civil dialogue and a freer society than the Kremlin accepts, and they dismissed Russian warnings about Western attendance.

Mr. Fried noted, for instance, that if Russian diplomats in the United States wanted to attend a conference organized by the Democratic Party, “we wouldn’t regard it as anything other than just doing their job.”

The Kremlin was publicly silent on the matter. But Mikhail V. Margelov, head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of Parliament, lashed out and suggested that the diplomats had made the opposition look like foreign stooges.

“What made them addicted to the mirage of The Other Russia on the eve of the Group of 8 summit?” the Interfax news service quoted him as saying. “Do experienced diplomats lack understanding that their mere presence at the meeting is the demolition of a structure created by Kasparov and Kasyanov in the eyes of Russians who are tired of following and listening to ideas from abroad?”

High jinks and stunts were evident as well. As if no Russian opposition meeting of any size could occur without a hidden provocateur, while Mr. Brenton gave his public address a man leaped up in the audience, threw leaflets and shouted, “All hail the empire!”

He was promptly dragged from the hall, shouting mostly incoherently about Russia’s glories, by a group of men, who gave him a liberal beating much of the way.

He was released at the curb.

By nightfall, the spokeswoman for The Other Russia said the four arrested participants had been located at a police station, where they were being interrogated.

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