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Civil disobedience turns violent in latest Russian uprisings

For the past six months, Western journalists in Moscow have represented the political situation in Russia as a simple dichotomy between good and evil, right and wrong, democracy and authoritarianism: in short, between the non-systemic opposition, spearheaded by figures such as Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, and Vladimir Putin, the latter of whom later today will be inaugurated as president for the third time. Journalists have not only taken sides in their coverage of the mass protests that characterised the election season and its aftermath, but occasionally have even taken part in the protests themselves.

The dichotomy they have peddled, however, remains a false one: the real and widening divide in Russia is the one that exists between the country’s political class — Putin, Medvedev, Navalny, Udaltsov, the government and both the systemic and non-systemic oppositions alike — and the people they claim to represent and seek to rule. That there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with Putin is obvious even outside Moscow and St Petersburg, though the unsuitability of any other candidate for the job — including those who would bring colour revolution to the country — is similarly evident.

I feel a great deal of sympathy, in particular, for the rank-and-file Muscovites who felt their vote was stolen in December’s parliamentary election and demanded justice — only to find themselves led by a nationalist and a radical socialist who made no attempt to consolidate and build on the opposition’s early successes, choosing instead to pursue an ill-advised strategy combining outlandish revolutionary rhetoric and intentionally provocative actions, which alienated an apparent majority of their base while simultaneously turning off potential converts to it.

When this became apparent following the election — most notably on March 10, when fewer than 10,000 showed up on Moscow’s Novy Arbat for a protest that felt more like a wake, following clashes between police and protesters five nights earlier when a group of the latter refused to disperse after a post-election rally — I had hoped opposition leaders would rethink the efficacy of the mass protest model and embrace a grassroots electoral strategy that would simultaneously allow them to develop their base outside the political and cultural capitals in areas where, to be blunt, their message had often appeared condescending and demeaning. When I sat down with Oleg Kozlovsky, a young liberal oppositionist, not long after the March 10 protest, he said that an even balance between electoral battles and street protests would be required going forward. But while there have been one or two notable examples of the former in the two months since we spoke, the period between the election and today’s inauguration has remained characterised by latter.

Astrakhan’s contested mayoral election serves as a useful case in point. The southern port city became the political story of the past two months, not because the defeated mayoral candidate, Oleg Shein, had legitimate reasons to believe that the results had been falsified — observers from his party, A Just Russia, happily signed off on the tallies in all of a few of the city’s polling booths — but rather because he was holding the government to ransom by refusing to eat until it gave him and his campaign team the right to search for such falsifications themselves in the hope of triggering a second poll.

When such problematic tactics, accompanied by an ever-shifting set of demands, resulted in a much-publicised opposition pilgrimage to the Volga delta and several solidarity hunger strikes back in the capital,  it became clear that the unglamorous but necessary work of becoming a viable opposition would never take precedence in the opposition leaders’ minds when the politics of martyrdom and escalation, and civil disobedience that verged on blackmail, were not only easier to organise, but drew more journalists, too.

Yesterday, civil disobedience verged on violence, and then toppled right on over into it. At the time of writing, more than 400 protesters, including Navalny, Udaltsov and Boris Nemtsov, had been arrested; at least six protesters and three police officers were receiving hospital treatment; and dozens more, including two television journalists beaten by protesters, had been injured.

It was also clear that the police crackdown, while it absolutely should not have resulted in so many innocent protesters getting assaulted or detained, had been triggered by a splinter group that attempted to breach police lines and then started throwing things at the police, including bottles and asphalt, when they were prevented from doing so. AP’s Nataliya Vasilyeva, who was in the crowd, later tweeted that the police reaction to the protesters’ attempt to get by them “seemed understandable”. “[But] what happened on the square was absurd,” she added. “[People] were staying on, just chanting — but riot police still came charged on them.”

Yesterday’s violence, which I was not witness to, but which is already all over the internet, was avoidable but inevitable: if the escalating confrontations between police and protesters since the presidential election has demonstrated anything, it is the extent to which an unrepresentative but highly visible element within the opposition, particularly that which has congealed around Left Front leader Udaltsov, has been actively seeking such a confrontation. That element’s earlier, peaceful provocations — lingering on a frozen pond at Pushkinskaya Square on March 5 and ignoring police warnings to disperse, then announcing a march to that same square five days later but deliberatly heading in the wrong direction and into the waiting arms of the riot police — failed to result in such a confrontation.

The police response in both cases was certainly disproportionate but hardly brutal or even strictly without justification.It became evident that non-violence was no longer going to cut it. If the YouTube videos of Anarchists kicking up asphalt and flinging it into the police lines suggests that the violence was a spontaneous response to police intimidation, then the reports of petrol bombs being thrown, as well as the presence of knives and other weapons among a radical minority of protesters, suggests that it was in fact pre-planned and sought out.

The Moscow News’ Mark Galeotti condemned both sides for their violence. “The set-piece and rather civilised nature of the previous protests risk becoming a thing of the past,” he wrote late last night. “The protesters risk losing not just their moral high ground but also their unity.” One might change “risk becoming” to “has become” and “risk losing” to “have lost” and find that one is that much closer to the reality of the situation.

I have been arguing for several months now that the opposition’s unity is and always has been illusory: the opposition is really a group of oppositions, brought briefly and tentatively together by their shared object of ire, with the accord between liberal democrats and ultra-nationalists, engineered to large extent by the self-proclaimed democratic-nationalist Navalny, as well as the one that exists between both groups and Udaltsov’s increasingly aggressive leftists, forever on the verge of dissolution.

Yesterday’s protest numbers were never going to reach the million promised by the opposition leaders. But similarly, given the proximity of the presidential inauguration and the general sense that this was the rank-and-file’s last chance to have their voices heard if not counted before the president-elect’s six-year term gets under way, the numbers were always going to be higher than they have been for the past few months. But the reason those numbers dropped in the first place — not protest fatigue, but weariness of revolution and its attendant risks, with the everyday middle-class democrats of the opposition particularly concerned about getting caught between a riot policeman and a hard-liner stuffing alcohol-soaked rags into bottles — will now almost certainly ensure that they will drop precipitously again.

From December, these oppositionists have tended to show up at a given protest only when the event has been authorised, and now radical elements within the opposition have all but ensured that few if any future actions will get the green light from the authorities again. While one may well raise the matter of freedom of assembly and the contradiction inherent in the idea of a government-sanctioned anti-government rally, it remains true that the four-foot-eight pensioners, the parents with their children, the 20-something lovers holding hands, and the jovial but decidedly non-revolutionary cab drivers — the kinds of people, in other words, who make up the bulk of the opposition’s numbers — are unlikely to take part in such actions without a green light to say that it is OK for them to do so.

Then again, after yesterday, many of them might not be willing to take part even if they are given such a light. These are not the sort of people who become radicalised by events such as yesterday’s. They are the type of people with jobs and families and unbroken legs who usually avoid protest altogether because of them.

How long the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the anti-Putin left and right remains to be seen,  though shared hatred of a third party has thus far served as a better cohesive between them than it has between them and the increasingly, perhaps now even permanently, alienated democrats of the rank-and-file.

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