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Civil protests in Russia take new forms

May 14, 2012, 17:06 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The movement of civil protests in Moscow and other large Russian cities, which developed last autumn to have eased somewhat after the March 4 presidential election, has been gaining strength again and taking new forms. Last Sunday’s peaceful strolls of protest along the Boulevard Ring road were clear evidence of that.

The Test Stroll, organized by critically minded book authors in effect proved a massive unauthorized street procession. This time the police displayed restraint – in contrast to what happened during an opposition demonstration on May 6. The men of letters succeeded there where politicians had failed – they held a mass unauthorized protest procession impeccably, without a single incident. Experts say there has been a change in both the tactic and the strategy of the protest movement. Also, they point to different behavior by the police and the authorities’ reaction to the events.

The opposition and the police differ in their estimates of the turnout for the Test Stroll. According to official statistics, taking part in the procession were up to 2,000 men and women, while the participants claim they were far more numerous – 10,000 to 15,000. The march by Moscow’s intellectuals ended in the Clean Ponds Boulevard amid the improvised camp of civil activists.

The Test Stroll in the company of book authors was conceived by novelist Boris Akunin as a response to mass detentions of opposition members on May 6-9, when more than 1,000 people were taken to police stations. Authors Dmitry Bykov, Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Boris Akunin were distributing copies of their books and autographs. Among the participants in the Test Stroll one could see popular journalists, politicians and musicians.

It’s for several days now that opposition activists have been using the public park near the Clean Ponds metro station as their base. The dissenters have disguised the protest demonstration as round-the-clock open-air entertainment get-together. The crowd varies 500 to 3,000. The demonstrators have been taking turns round the clock.

The campers say they are determined to stay in the Clean Ponds Boulevard for at least another two weeks, until two protest activists, Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny, are released after the administrative arrest. On Sunday both were questioned in the capacity of witnesses in the mass rioting case.

The director of the Institute of Applied Politics, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, on May 11 conducted an opinion poll in the Clean Bonds Boulevard with the aim to find out the age, social composition and interests of the protesters. The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes the expert as saying most of the campers are university students and young professionals aged 30. Kryshtanovskaya believes there are two distinct trends within the opposition movement. “General humanitarian protest is one. It is true that the country has many problems, the elections went wrong in many respects and certain political mistakes by the authorities are evident. The other part of the opposition is the nucleus of professional revolutionaries, with well-planned actions and financial backing. Their slogan is Down with the Authorities! This is certainly a revolutionary call. These people are true revolutionaries – Navalny, Udaltsov and others. They wish a government overturn. But those who participated in last Sunday’s stroll don’t.”

Any harsh measure by the authorities – and the authorities will have to act tough – will radicalize the protests, Kryshtanovskaya says with certainly. “If there is no dialogue, there will not be anything else. In order to bring these people together and put them on a normal legal track a party will have to be created.”

The authorities hope that the interest in protest activities will fade away, but such expectations are futile, Kryshtanovskaya told the daily Vedomosti. So far the authorities have responded with light bites and ineffective counter-propaganda. “This is a pre-revolutionary situation,” the analyst warns.

The deputy president of the Center for Political Technologies, Rostislav Turovsky, believes that the out-of-parliament street opposition has been trying to grab and retain political initiative – and it has proved quite successful in doing so, because the authorities have been unable to counter it with anything meaningful, apart from repressive tactics.

At the same time, as Turovsky has remarked, the Opposition has no clear alternative program. “This is the opposition’s headache, because the radicals by and large rely on wholesale denial of the existing regime. This is political unprofessionalism.” This situation of a vacuum of content is fraught with certain risks. Experience shows that in such cases popularity may go over to some radical or populist-minded political forces, which have not taken shape yet, but which have vast room for action.

The Clean Ponds Boulevard camp is a response of the “angry urban class” to the authorities’ crackdown on participants in the May 6 demonstration some had dubbed a “march by millions” in advance, says political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya on the website. The protesters have no slogans or political demands.

They merely wish to demonstrate with the very instance of their presence in the Clean Ponds Boulevard they have the right to assemble peacefully, and do so there and whenever they deem appropriate without any coordination with the authorities. Coming to the Clean Ponds Boulevard is a sort of fashion – people there sing songs, make friends, talk philosophy, and recite poems.

In the meantime, the federal authorities, she says, are in confusion. They has been trying various methods of response to this demonstration, which they see as an eyesore. And the United Russia fraction in the State Duma is about to consider a bill that may tighten the rules of street protests and the responsibility for abusing them. Unrest during unauthorized rallies may be punishable with a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles.

“A decision is about to be made to punish the Opposition with heavy fines, and some most zealous guardians of the law have been demanding prison terms for Navalny and Udaltsov. Is there a better way of whipping up the protests?” Stanovaya asks.

The authorities and United Russia have lost the young educated urban middle class, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes political scientist Boris Makarenko as saying. “The degree and forms of activity of that class will be changing, depending on reaction by the authorities. It’s like trying to stop streams of melting snow in springtime. Put up a dam here, water will find a roundabout way.”

MOSCOW, May 14