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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Crackdown in Nizhny Novogorod

Last week, LR reported that the cowardly Kremlin had once again banned the peaceful protest march of Garry Kasparov's "Other Russia" party, this time in Nizhny Novgorod (last time it was in Piter). The valiant party members marched anyway, and reader Penny, among many others, writes LR to point with horror at the weekend crackdown (pictured above). A reader reports that the police were much more aggressive this time in seeking to grab photographic devices and destroy records of their acts; yet, in the age of the Internet, some images will inevitably slip through their slimy fingers.

The AP reports:

Riot police wielding truncheons broke up an opposition rally in a central Russian city on Saturday, detaining dozens of activists and beating some of them in the third major crackdown on a demonstration in recent months.

The activists focused on local issues but also accused the Kremlin of stifling free speech, silencing dissent and depriving them of a free and fair political process ahead of December parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote. Authorities had not given permission for the rally in a central square in Nizhny Novgorod, saying a demonstration could only take place far from the city center. Hundreds of riot police in full gear cordoned off the central square. Still, organizer Natalya Morar said, several hundred protesters managed to hold a short rally - dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree - near the central square until police dragged them into buses that took them to police stations.

An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of protesters taken into custody by police and some beaten with truncheons. The photographer was briefly detained by officers, who later released him, saying there had been a mistake.

President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, has given strong hints that he would pick a favored successor. Opposition groups have accused the Kremlin of further consolidating control over the country's political life ahead of elections to make sure its opponents stand no chance of winning.

State-controlled television channels made no mention of the rally in their newscasts throughout the day.

Oksana Chelysheva, another organizer and rights activist, said her group had received complaints from hundreds of people heading to the rally who said they were blocked by police from entering the city center. Morar said hundreds of activists had been pulled off trains and buses and detained on their way to the rally. She said several dozen journalists, including foreign reporters, were also detained.

Among those arrested was Marina Litvinovich, an aide to liberal opposition figure Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned fierce critic of Putin. Litvinovich told The Associated Press that she was detained, to prevent her from protesting, as she was driving into the city, on the grounds that her personal car was on a list of stolen vehicles. She was released several hours later, only to be arrested a second time for the same purported reason. Morar said two other organizers detained ahead of the rally were in custody on suspicion of terrorist activity. She said they have been accused of distributing pamphlets with instructions on how to become a terrorist.

Regional police spokesman Alexander Gorbatov said that only about 30 people had been detained for holding an unauthorized protest. It was unclear what would happen to the protesters who were detained. Under Russian law, police can hold suspects for up to 3 days, after which they must either be released or a court must sanction their arrest for a longer period of time, pending investigation.

The local news agency, Nizhny Novgorod, cited deputy governor Sergei Potapov as saying protesters were receiving funding from the United States and several European countries. "They are looking for pretexts for discontent for money," Potapov was quoted as saying. Organizers denied the allegations. "The authorities are afraid of people, they feel highly insecure," Chelysheva said. "They fear that people will express their discontent" during elections.

The rally in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, was the third such protest in recent months. While the first was allowed to take place in Moscow in December, police detained dozens of participants before and during the rally, according to organizers. Protesters then gathered for a second March of Those Who Disagree earlier this month in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, but the rally was violently broken up by police.

Since taking office in 2000, Putin has made steps to centralize power and eliminate democratic checks and balances. He has created an obedient parliament, abolished direct gubernatorial elections, tightened restrictions on rights groups and presided over the reining-in of non-state television channel.

The Sunday Times adds more detail:

DOZENS of opponents of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, were arrested yesterday as they tried to stage an antiKremlin demonstration that was broken up by riot police wielding batons. Clashes broke out as hundreds of policemen prevented the protesters, who accuse Putin of rolling back democracy and returning to Soviet-style authoritarianism, from gathering in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city.

Many of those detained were taken off trains as they travelled to the city and even journalists covering the demonstration were arrested. According to unconfirmed reports, two of the protest organisers were accused of distributing a terrorism manual that their colleagues said did not even exist. If so, the two could be tried on terrorism charges and face a lengthy jail sentence. “It’s shocking that the authorities would go to such lengths and expense to stop people from voicing their opinions,” said Denis Bilunov, one of the protesters and a close aide of Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who has become one of Putin’s fiercest critics.

“As far as I know, all the organisers have been arrested. The Kremlin calls this a democracy.”

Yesterday’s crackdown, in which several protesters were said to have been beaten by police, is part of a Kremlin campaign to crush opposition to Putin’s rule and to ensure that the candidate he chooses as his successor wins next year’s presidential election. The Russian constitution bars him from serving more than two terms. During Putin’s seven years in power, the Kremlin has brought all national television channels and most newspapers under its control. Opposition figures have been jailed, driven into exile, threatened and in some cases — never proven to be linked to the Kremlin — gunned down. Genuine opposition in Russia’s next parliament will be further neutered after the supreme court announced last week that it had closed down the small Republican party for having too few members.

Censorship is so strict that TV journalists are provided with unofficial lists of politicians they are not allowed to mention in reports. “We have long been told that as far as we are concerned, those on the list don’t exist in Russia,” said a TV reporter.

News bulletins paint Putin and his policies in glowing terms — a practice reminiscent of Sovi-et-era propaganda. Parliament, a source of fierce opposition under Boris Yeltsin’s rule, is now a rubber-stamp assembly.

The two main parties that dominate both houses, United Russia and A Just Russia, are fervently pro-Kremlin and are headed by close allies of the president. In a move widely condemned as antidemocratic, Putin has abolished regional elections and now has the power to nominate and sack governors. Officially the president’s candidates need approval from local legislatures but the procedure is a formality. “The average voter is neither expected nor able to influence policy in the slightest,” wrote Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of parliament whose Republican party was banned last week. “The voter’s only function is to confer a sort of legitimacy on the authorities by voting in rigged elections.”

The Kremlin denies it is back-tracking on democracy and says elections are free and fair. But it makes no secret of its wish to end the splintered party system that plagued Russia in the 1990s. Putin has recently taken further steps to ensure the outcomes of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential poll in March 2008 are the ones he wants. Small political parties seeking to stand find the barriers all but insurmountable. Even Yabloko, the country’s best known opposition party, was struck off the ballot in local elections in St Petersburg earlier this year. A protest vote is no longer possible since the Kremlin recently had the option of “against all” taken off ballots. Nor are demonstrations tolerated. Yesterday’s march was one of many banned or broken up by the authorities.

About 100 protesters were detained earlier this year when members of Other Russia, a coalition of small opposition groups led by Kasparov, demonstrated in St Petersburg. Kasparov told reporters last week he feared for his safety in Russia. He has moved his family to New York and employs bodyguards. He also tries to avoid flying on Aeroflot, the state airline. “There is a risk of becoming a victim and I have to reduce the chances,” said Kasparov. “But I take it as part of my moral duty that I am carrying on.”

Other opposition figures have given up. Last week Sergei Gla-zyev, a former presidential candidate, announced he was leaving politics as Putin now wielded more power than the tsars. “Policy in this country is determined by one man,” he said.

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