Vladimir Putin is by no means a lame-duck president. Although presumably not quite a year is left in his constitutionally-mandated tenure, Putin’s reign has less in common with Western-style pluralistic democracy than it does with the autocratic rule of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
The recent violent suppression of the “Marches of Disagreement” in three major Russian cities shows that the situation is nearing the boiling point. The marches, in three cities — Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, and Moscow — were held to protest the repression that has occurred in advance of the upcoming legislative elections.
In preparation for the Nizhny Novgorod march, the movement leaders applied to authorities for permission to meet in the city center. In theory, no such permission is required and that right is safeguarded by the constitution. The authorities were given advance notification of the event’s date and time as well as the expected number of people. But they claimed the march was illegal and threatened opposition leaders with court warrants unless cancelled. On March 28 the march went forward in violation of the warnings.
According to eyewitnesses, the Nizhny Novgorod police acted as if they expected an army of protesters, with several thousand in camouflage fatigues surrounding Gorky Square. Putin’s cronies also organized a counter-protest, which was promoted as a “Festival of Youth Art.” It attracted several hundred 18- to 20-year-olds showing their “art,” which consisted largely of thrown-together cakes, last-minute costumes, and hastily chiseled wood. But that wasn’t enough. Yet another counter-protest, organized by the Putin-supported youth organization Nashi (“Ours”), marched in “support of the Russian language.”
Once all the marches got underway, the results were predictable: just a few minutes after the first slogans against “Putin” and his “police state” were heard on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod, the opposition members were swept aside by rubber batons and thrown into police buses operated by the local SWAT team.
Government officials then proclaimed that the police had been ordered to suppress any provocations from the opposition and to protect the youth festival. Not surprisingly, the government-run TV stations broadcast news coverage showing the youth art march and the Nashi march, both of which were called successful. The March of Disagreement was ignored.
A similar scene played out in Moscow. In Pushkin Square, SWAT teams of some 9,000 were brought in from different parts of the country. The intent was to involve regional police rather than use locals. The local police could not be relied upon, since presumably they would be reluctant to use force. Rural troops — always envious of their fellows in Moscow — were not so constrained. When the occasion arose, the troops’ hatred of rich Moscovites and their “disagreements” over the economic disparities between them poured out. Moscovites, regardless of their age, were pulled from the crowd and beaten with batons, and then thrown into trucks with barred windows, hauled off to local police departments, and then to court. Blood from broken faces, jaws, and arms spilled onto the street.
Once it became clear that the march on Pushkin Square was hopeless, a remaining handful of fewer than 50 people peacefully strolled towards a metro station without carrying any signs, not even trying to protest. They were stopped at the metro entrance and ordered to proceed to the busses. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, probably Russia’s most recognizable opposition leader, was in the crowd, and joked that he believed taking public transport was still legal in that country. In response, he was hit with a baton. Kasparov and other march participants were arrested, brought to court, and convicted within hours, “guilty of marching in a crowd, shouting anti-government and anti-Russian slogans.”
Several bruised “criminals,” aged 20 to 80 years, were fined 1,000 rubles ($35) and released at day’s end. The court verdict is yet another example of Russia’s fine judicial system.
The consequences of the marches were not as tragic as they could have been, but the conclusions to be drawn from them are clear. Violent suppression of any democratic protest is the latest example of the deterioration of human rights under Putin, who has also re-centralized power, restricted free speech, and used increasingly repressive measures — and not just in Chechnya. The overwhelming police force used to suppress a handful of protesters shows that the Russian government is unwilling to allow even small public disagreements.
The brutality of the police may scare the Russian people over the short term, but it also may erode public support for Putin and his autocracy. Boris Yeltsin is dead. Putin is in power. And all pretenses of democracy in Russia have fallen by the wayside.