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Feature Story April 20, 2007
Russian Protests: The Deleted Scenes
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 3 of 3

The major Western media has yet to report Kasparov's role in the Center for Security Policy. And the organization has done its best to air-brush Kasparov's membership from its history. Kasparov's name no longer appears on the CSP's website, although if you look through wikipedia, you'll find the cached web pages that used to be up. Why would they try to erase the past?

One reason why Kasparov's name was removed has to do with conflict of interest. After last weekend's protest, not only did the Wall Street Journal shake its indignant fist at Putin's authoritarianism on behalf of its own contributing editor, but the Washington Times and other outlets printed an equally damning, pro-Kasparov piece by none other than Frank Gaffney, the Center for Security Policy's founder. Neither Gaffney nor the Washington Times mentioned his links to Kasparov.

It is not only odd that the Western media is ignoring this -- it's downright sinister. And it feeds into the paranoia and cynicism which fuels the Kremlin's thinking. It's almost too perfect, too clean: the leader of the anti-Putin movement is directly tied to the American far right, whose stated goal is to keep Russia weak and to claim the resources in its backyard. Meanwhile, the supposedly-free Western media not only doesn't report this, but builds up Kasparov as a modern-day Gandhi, much the same way that the Kremlin-controlled media here cynically builds up its own "virtual" nationalists and leftists and sells them to a gullible public that doesn't know any better. How could this be? What is this really all about?

* * *

The other fact missing from nearly every Western media account of the protests is that last weekend's marches weren't banned. People do have a right to hold anti-government rallies here. But they are restricted, sometimes severely. For example, the opposition wasn't allowed to hold their rally on Pushkin Square as requested; they were given nearby Turgenevskaya Square instead. Albeit just for an hour.

Another crucial fact missing from nearly every account you read or watched is that the opposition is trying to provoke a confrontation. Anyone who watched the protests, or heard the major actors speak, knows this. The goal of these protests is to provoke a heavy-handed reaction from the government, in order to create wider sympathy for the protesters, and to awaken discontent for the regime. This is a common strategy in such movements, and it doesn't make the protesters cynical -- they're doing what it takes to awaken people's political consciousness. But to omit this fact from media accounts is incredibly misleading. You get the sense that they were denied the right to voice their opinion, and once they did, they were surprised by a vicious OMON attack which no one could have foreseen. What horseshit. One Western journalist I know told me that he regretted not including his interview with one protest leader, who openly admitted that it was the opposition's strategy to provoke the authorities, into his article.

If the Western press's accounts included these vital details -- that the march wasn't banned, but rather restricted; that the opposition planned and hoped to provoke the authorities; and that the West's poster boy, Gary Kasparov, is essentially the neo-cons' Man In Russia -- it might not make for very inspiring reading. It goes from being a tale of beleaguered good guys fighting evil tyrants to something much murkier and more cynical and confusing.

* * *

Getting the story at Pushkin Square on Saturday was all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The OMONtsy did a thorough job of cutting off access, dividing the open space into barricaded sections. I chose what seemed like a good vantage point on a ledge outside of the Pushkin Square metro station exit. But the beatings and arrests of the crowd Kasparov was leading took place around the corner on Tverskaya. I had a direct line onto Pushkin Square, but couldn't see Tverskaya. All I caught was the aftermath: a bus packed with Kasparov and his supporters, waving flags out the window as it drove off. It seemed like a dud. I only learned how savage it was later, at the Turgenevskaya rally.

That was where I started to see a difference. In spite of the violence and menace, the crowd had a large percentage of young, middle-class student bohemian types. They were genuinely interested and involved, they were brave, and emotional and genuinely outraged at even the mildest moves by the police and OMONtsy.

I've been going to protests in Russia ever since the shelling of the White House in '93. The rebels fighting Yeltsin had huge numbers, but they didn't represent the future of the country - for the most part, they were old. They were mostly those who had been left behind. This is one key reason the '93 rebellion lacked momentum after Yeltsin's massacre. It lacked that sense of inevitability that protest movements which appeal to the young and the intelligentsia have.

OMON Attacks Kasparov Supporters

The most violent clashes I'd witnessed involving the OMONtsy took place at Grazhdanskaya Oborona concerts, the wildest being a concert-turned-protest in December, 1993. The OMONtsy fired shotguns at the crowds of punks, who were protesting Yeltsin's fascism and the fact that the show was sold out; the punks charged in waves at the shotgun wielding OMONtsy, leading to a shitload of bloodied teenagers, two burning trams, and enormous amounts of broken glass. Over time, protests in Russia became far too managed and dull; all that remained was Edward Limonov's National-Bolsheviks, the only protesters with a pulse and ideas. That is obviously why the democrats brought his organization in.

After the Turgenevskaya rally broke up early, I joined a small group of protesters outside of the Presnenskaya precinct where Kasparov and others were being held. When we arrived, there were only about 100 people, half of them journalists. A thin, casual line of OMONtsy kept them about 25 meters from the precinct building.

About 40 minutes after we arrived, the dynamics suddenly changed. The crowd tripled or quadrupled, chanting slogans and waving flags. Masha Gaidar, one of the youth protest leaders and daughter of 90s reformer-villain Yegor Gaidar, was released to the cheers of the protesters.

Mark Ames runs with protesters
at the Marsh Nesoglasnikh at Moscow's Turgenevskaya Square

Then the OMON beefed up its presence, marching out in attack formation, clearly intending to bash some heads. They divided the crowd, and I got caught inside a cordon along with the core protesters and some journalists. One by one, the OMONtsy marched into the crowd, thwacked their next victim with their batons, which looked like lethal noodles as they bent with each strike, and dragged him or her away to a waiting police truck...

Eventually, we were forced farther and farther back, leading some protesters to abandon the setting for somewhere else, while others were left furious and wanting to do more. One kid lay down in front of an Interior Ministry truck's wheels. It didn't take long for the OMONtsy to bash him a few times and clear him away. Farther down the road, another young protester was trying to rally a small crowd into lying down on the road and blocking access to the police precinct. The problem was, by this point, there just weren't enough people to make it effective. The OMONtsy today are far more disciplined and effective than I remembered them from the Yeltsin years, when they were sloppy and brutal. I'd watched them refuse to get provoked in Turgenevskaya Square, and I'd seen them brutalize small groups of defenseless protesters when it was deemed useful.

Indeed the numbers of protesters were not that very impressive last weekend, not compared to Russian standards from the recent past, or to rallies and protests in America. But what was much more significant was the elan. The worst thing for the authorities would be for these protests, or for the protesters' stance, to become cool, trendy, or sympathetic with another, wider strata of Russians. But it seems as if it's already happening. When the OMONtsy were clearing the protesters from the police precinct, a woman stood on her balcony at a nearby apartment building and yelled at the cops to leave the kids alone. I personally met several Russians over the next few days who expressed either sympathy with the protesters or, more often, their disgust with the cops' brutality. "They don't do that in the West, right? We don't have a normal country here!"

One friend of mine told me that many of her classmates from MGU's law school talked about how they sympathized with the protesters, and with the idea of opposing the government. That was something new. But why wouldn't they feel that way? It's a matter of dignity and of shame, as the protest leaders, from Khakamada and Kasyanov to Limonov, repeated over and over, an idea which resonates with many Russians.

At some point, it is no longer enough to be satisfied that you are ruled by a corrupt, despotic elite whose best quality is that it is less bad and less foreign than the previous elite; it is no longer satisfying enough to live in a country which has achieved mere stability; and it's no longer enough to blame one's problems on the machinations of rival nations. As many protesters said, it's shameful and embarrassing to live in a country which beams crude pro-government propaganda from every TV station, and which massively and crudely manipulates its political process. The protesters are those who expect more from Russia. And their numbers could grow.

It is this sensibility which threatens someday -- not now, but maybe in 2, 3, 5 years -- to topple the system currently in place, and the elites who benefit from it. That is why the authorities are scared, and that is why they want to crush it now.

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