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Monday, April 23, 2007

Why We March

Writing in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" section (hat tip: Robert Amsterdam), Oksana Chelysheva, a journalist at the Russian Chechen Information Agency, which specialises in reporting on Chechnya, and a leading member of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights organisation that co-publishes the newspaper Pravo-zashchita ("Rights Protection") and was recently banned by the Kremlin, explains why she defies Vladimir Putin's neo-Gestapo and marches in protest:

Russia's great leap backwards

Recent dissenters' marches in Russia organised by the Other Russia coalition have prompted a violent response. So why do people keep marching?

The Russian authorities seem to think that they can break down the opposition coalition, the Other Russia, by beating-up students and women and detaining the group's leaders. The last two dissenters' marches, held in Moscow on April 14 and in St Petersburg on April 15, have shown that those taking the decision to use violence against the demonstrators are making a crucial tactical mistake. They are generating more protest in response. The connection between the two is direct: the more extreme the reaction of the authorities, the stronger the dissenters become.

Why are people joining the dissenters' marches? I can't generalise, since there are as many opinions as there are people. But perhaps I can provide some background to the current situation.

On May 1 1989, many of my friends, including Stas Dmitrievsky, held a protest rally, instead of celebrating Spring and Labour day. My friends were carrying a homemade tricoloured Russian flag, a serious note of dissent, since the country was still under the red flag of the USSR at the time. The demonstrators were dispersed. Many were detained and held in custody for several days. They were released after the intervention of the academic Andrei Sakharov and others including two US congressmen.

I was not shocked at their detention. That, I felt, was unavoidable. I was shocked with the authorities' subsequent revenge on a building where we used to meet. It was a beautiful mansion built in the 19th century and was listed as a site of architectural heritage in Nizhny Novgorod. The building had been abandoned for some time. We had occupied it, repaired it and protected it from demolition. While the trial on our friends was being held, bulldozers razed it to the ground, declaring it a "place where anti-soviet propaganda ideas were disseminated". This barbarous act was pointless: how could a house influence the spread of democratic ideas?

Two years later, the tricolour flag become an emblem of the new Russian state. It so happened that the judges had kept that same homemade banner seized by KGB agents in 1989. Trying to prove their loyalty to the new power, the authorities raised it on their building ...

So what is the connection between the situation in Russia in 1989 and 2007? Well, the people's voice is becoming ever louder. At the same time, the panic of the authorities is becoming more evident. The measures that they are applying to suppress the opposition are becoming more heavy-handed. In Nizhny Novgorod on March 24, they sent in 20,000 heavily armed Omon (special militia unit) servicemen to subdue around 1,000 prospective protesters. By this act, the authorities only revealed their own paranoia.

What are the local authorities of Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and St Petersburg actually proving by their persistent, unwarranted banning of non-violent rallies initiated by Other Russia? Clearly, they are fearful of the growing dissent. They are trying to persuade themselves and the population that notorious oligarchs sponsor these events. They prefer to blame people's readiness to take to the streets on plots orchestrated by CIA and MI5 agents, not the people's own will. Perhaps their mentality, which is that of former and current FSB agents, doesn't provide the necessary scope for their imagination.

And why have I joined the marches? Because I am furious with the arrogance of the Kremlin, who consider themselves masters of our flesh and fate. I don't want to feel the eyes of the police following me all the time. I want to be able to move around my city and country freely. I don't want my telephone to be tapped. I don't want my friends to be killed. I don't want to receive any more death threats that remain uninvestigated.

I want my daughter to live in the Russia that I love and admire. That's the Russia of great culture and beautiful nature. It is not Putin's Russia that has alienated the countries of the free world, while cherishing allies from Hamas, Syria and North Korea. I feel furious with the Kremlin's arrogant certainty that we are just a herd who need to have a shepherd. I have participated in the marches to feel and become free.

In Nizhny Novgorod on March 24 the authorities demonstrated their readiness to apply force against peaceful protesters. Police helicopters barraged the city. Armoured personnel carriers drove into the yard of a kindergarten. Some 20,000 heavily-armed soldiers and Omon servicemen from 10 regions of Russia set against possibly 1,000 protesters. There was no march but they stirred up people's anger.

In Moscow on April 14 the number of soldiers and Omon was less: some 9,000. But the level of the authorities' fear seemed far greater. They missed our marching column because they drew all their forces into Pushkinskaya Square and Tverskaya Street. They were so paranoid about another "orange" revolution that they focused all their attentions on blocking the way to Manezhnaya Square and the Kremlin ... And cleared our way towards Turgenev Square, the site of the authorised rally.

But when an animal is wounded, it becomes 10 times more dangerous. The Omon began to chase people and beat them up. Many were injured. I went to hospital after being injured by an Omon serviceman's kick to be told that I was the 54th protester to arrive there that day.

St Petersburg the following day was even more horrific. The authorities overrode an order restricting the Omon to threatening people with batons. A number of demonstrators were subsequently hospitalised.

What was President Putin doing that spring weekend? He left Moscow for St Petersburg while his "valorous" Omon were beating people in Moscow. He spent the day in the company of Jean-Claude Van Damme. The white marble of Van Damme's teeth looked even brighter against Putin's black shirt and pale face. It seems that Putin is really trying to cope with the deep psychological injury caused by the victory of the "orange" movement in Ukraine by demonstrating an absolute neglect of the basic norms of democracy.

What will happen next? New marches and bans on them, such as happened in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday. The city authorities prohibited a rally organised by Other Russia against the demolition of the historic centre of the city, founded in 1221. The United Russia party had allegedly notified them a few minutes before. People are planning to protest all the same.

New dispersions by the authorities are inevitable, as they seem to believe the ravings that their own agitated minds have created. Whether they will be more or less violent depends on the reaction from Putin's free world "allies" from the EU and G8. So far, the world prefers to keep their eyes closed to the growing danger. It is the people of Russia who have begun to call the Omon "fascists" and soldiers "skinheads", while European politicians still don't see a clear and startling resemblance between Germany in the 1930s and Russia now. In neglecting Russians in their movement against a state that is based on violence and repression, the world betrays its own democratic values.

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