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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Neo-Soviet Counter-Revolutionary Crackdown

The Moscow Times reports on the Kremlin's pathetic cowardliness in the face of the upcoming Duma elections. Not satisfied to destroy opposition literature, ban opposition party registration and exclude foreign election observers, it is creating a gang of thugs to attack anyone who dares to protest the lack of democratic choice -- apparently still afraid that despite all its draconian measures it could still face insurrection.

Pro-Kremlin youth groups, backed by police, are in the final stages of preparations to inundate the city with tens of thousands of loyal teens with orders to prevent an Orange-style revolution in the lead-up to the Dec. 2 State Duma elections. Few of the conditions that led to Ukraine's 2006 Orange Revolution or the Rose Revolution a year earlier in Georgia are present in Russia, however, and opposition youth groups say they aren't looking for a confrontation. But this isn't stopping the authorities from confining them to the periphery anyway.

Activists from Nashi, Young Guard and Young Russia have been pouring into schools, universities, clubs and bars nationwide to spread one message among Russia's youngest electorate: It is your duty to vote for United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin. All of this leaves precious little room for the opposition youth groups like Yabloko Youth and the Red Youth Vanguard, which have their campaigning restricted to chatting with voters and pasting up flyers at bus stops. "The current climate simply does not allow for running a normal promotional campaign," said Ilya Yashin, head of Yabloko Youth.

The Yabloko group and the leftist Red Youth Vanguard have found it hard to compete with the deep budget, presidential blessing and now police backing enjoyed by their pro-Kremlin counterparts. All three advantages were evident Friday, when members of Nashi's newly created volunteer patrol force from different Russian cities met in Moscow for an orienteering competition. Police closed off Bolotnaya Ploshchad for the 1,000-plus activists, who were fitted out with funky Nashi coats and scarves and lined up along the Moscow River waiting to be dispatched around the city. None of the activists or organizers denied that the reason behind the Soviet-style volunteer patrols was to help police quash any illegal street protests by opposition forces. The exercise served a purpose toward that end: to familiarize the activists with central Moscow so, come Dec. 2, they can mobilize more quickly should protests spring up. "I don't know about you, but I don't want my country's fate decided by one measly protest," said Roman Verbitsky, a coordinator of the volunteer force.

So far there have been no clashes between pro-Kremlin youth groups and opposition demonstrators. But that could all change come Nov. 24, when The Other Russia plans to hold a Dissenters' March near Pushkin Square. City Hall has yet to grant permission for the event. The Other Russia is a perfect target for Nashi, which sees it as a manifestation of foreign meddling in Russia's internal affairs. Many believe the organization is funded from abroad. The tycoon Boris Berezovsky, living in exile in London, said in an interview earlier this year, "If you ask me if I am funding The Other Russia, I will say 'No comment.'" The Other Russia is led by world chess champion turned opposition activist Garry Kasparov, whom Nashi regularly ridicules. "Whether we get permission or not, we will press ahead with our constitutional right to peaceful demonstrations," said Marina Litvinovich, Kasparov's spokeswoman.

Litvinovich described Nashi as "funny" and "not serious," and said the opposition coalition was not intimidated by the youth group -- with or without the police on its side. "We have never, ever conducted violent protests. It is Nashi that resorts to violence," she added, mentioning later that Nashi activists had damaged Kasparov's car after a recent news conference in Moscow. In response, Alexandra Valtinina, a spokeswoman for Nashi's volunteer patrols, confirmed that that the group would, in theory, help police quash an unsanctioned Dissenters' March, refusing to elaborate. "It's very early, they could still receive permission," Valtinina said.

Nashi, which boasts 100,000 members nationwide, has refused to announce its plans for Dec. 2. But a spokeswoman said recently that activists would be out in force in central squares and near major monuments during the Duma elections. Until then, hundreds of regular Nashi activists will continue walking around the city every weekend handing out leaflets and trying to talk people into voting for United Russia, another party spokeswoman, who would not give her name, said last week. Young Russia, a group started by Moscow university students, will conduct its pro-United Russia campaign in the city's educational institutions, spokeswoman Lilia Bagramova said. A Young Russia newspaper will be printed and distributed around and universities and other post-secondary institutions underlining the importance of voting and detailing "Putin's Plan," Bagramova said.

On Dec. 2, Young Russia activists will offer the chance to win movie theater tickets to every student who votes, she added. Young Guard, United Russia's official youth group is planning "large demonstrations" in all of the country's regions, said Vadim Zharko, the organization's spokesman. Young Guard claims a national membership of 70,000. While the pro-Kremlin groups are each organizing their own events, they are not working completely independently, Zharko said. Andrei Turchak, a member of the general council of United Russia and Young Guard's former leader, is in charge of coordinating the activities of the three groups to achieve maximum effectiveness, Zharko said. Turchak could not be reached Tuesday.

Yabloko's youth group, which has around 3,000 members, is planning a small demonstration on Pushkin Square on Nov. 18. The group is following bus routes, putting up their fliers and speaking to prospective voters, Yashin said. Sergei Udaltsov, head of the Red Youth Vanguard, refused Friday to provide any information on when the left-wing group would take to the streets in Moscow. While plans had been made for a big Red Youth Vanguard demonstration in the city, he said, they "aren't being announced yet." The Red Youth Vanguard had been part of Kasparov's The Other Russia. At the movement's congress in September, however, Udaltsov announced that it was quitting the coalition, saying it opposed its decision to name a united candidate for the presidential election in March. Udaltsov said that about 80,000 Red Youth Vanguard activists were out across the country, dropping leaflets in people's mailboxes and holding small demonstrations under the slogan "We are against Putin's Plan."

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