This year, the traditional May holidays in Russia were fraught with more than the regular dose of politics. Vladimir Putin was inaugurated to his third presidential term, Dmitry Medvedev returned to the post of the Prime Minister, and the protesters took to the street once again. The response to these demonstrations made it clear that the Russian authorities would no longer tolerate the opposition and their rallies. The protesters also made it clear that they were not going to give up. If the screws get any tighter, the political stand-off in Russia might turn into an ugly, and perhaps even bloody, confrontation.
The May 6th protest had been in the works for two months. It was ambitiously named the March of Millions: with nearly 100 thousand demonstrators at the December rallies in Moscow, organizers had hoped that by May, they would be able to garner the support of a million. These expectations were inflated, but nonetheless, the turnout was large enough to silence the pessimists. According to opposition sources, around 30 thousand people came to Bolotnaya Square (the same location as six months ago) to protest the inauguration of Vladimir Putin. The official numbers were, of course, much lower—around 8 thousand.
Unlike previous demonstrations, this time, the rally was not so peaceful. Riot police clashed violently with the protesters, which resulted in about 400 people being detained and 80 injured. Commenting on the conflict, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, said that the police reaction was “too gentle” and that he would have liked to see them crack down harder on the protesters. This statement is the first official confirmation of the aggression toward the opposition movement from the country’s upper echelon of power. It is no longer a vague signal from above—now, it’s a full-fledged threat.
The presidential inauguration took place exactly as planned. On May 7th, Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin and was sworn into office on the Russian Constitution, thus finalizing the political transition he and former President Medvedev had announced on September 24, 2011. It was this announcement, cynical in its nature and disrespectful to the will of the Russian people, that had triggered the protests in the first place and caused the escalating stand-off between authorities and the educated and Westernized segment of Russian society.
The inauguration ceremony was pompous, and Putin came off as grave and smug. “[It was] an impressive sight, full of tsarist pageantry,” Tom Parfitt wrote in his article for the Telegraph. “But something was missing: the Russian people. They were nowhere to be seen. The streets down which Mr. Putin sped before his inauguration were silent; blocked off by police trucks and devoid of human presence. No protesters could approach him, but no well-wishers too.”
Indeed, it was impossible to get around downtown Moscow that day: all major streets were blocked or cordoned off as part of frankly extraordinary security measures. But protesters refused to take the hint. Unsanctioned demonstrations formed in pockets throughout the city, and it proved impossible to control them all. Apparently, the police had already gotten a carte blanche and were not afraid to use force on people—even when completely unnecessary. In the words of Ellen Barry of the New York Times, “a buoyant Sunday march turned violent after a group of radical activists tried to break through a police column apparently in an effort to reach the Kremlin. Police officers in riot gear charged into the crowd trying to drag out people they thought had pelted them with smoke bombs and rocks, and beat them fiercely with nightsticks.”
“The people have been mobilized. Now there can only be war,” Gazeta.Ru journalists concluded bitterly.
Another report, from Julia Ioffe for the New Yorker, contained even more worrisome details: “There was supposed to be a flashmob of people wearing white—symbol of the winter’s peaceful anti-Kremlin protests—and the order had come down to arrest people walking the streets with white ribbons. People were snapped off of park benches, as they strolled Moscow’s romantic boulevards. Riot police stormed a café, Jean-Jacques, known as a hub of opposition social life. They grabbed people sipping coffee outside, turned over tables, and shattered dishes. Then they occupied it, and the pub next door. Immediately, a picture juxtaposing today’s image with a photograph of Wermacht enjoying a Parisian café in June 1941 made the rounds online. “This,” one blogger declared, “is war.”
In a blog post for the New York Times, outspoken Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, described the course of events of the May 6th protest. She had taken her 10 year old daughter Yael to what was supposed to have been her first peaceful rally. After violence erupted, Gessen decided that this would be the last protest she would be taking her daughter to: "My friends got Yael out safely. I have never been more scared than I was on Sunday as I waited for her. But I am not the only one: In advance of the inauguration, which began at noon on Monday, the Kremlin was surrounded with riot police and much of the center of Moscow, including nine subway stations, was shut down. Still, there was another protest on Monday—inspired in large part by what happened Sunday. I did not take Yael with me to that protest, nor would I take her to any other, until the Putin era is over."
By Monday evening, more than 750 protesters had been detained. Some were soon released; regardless, the rally went on.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for protesters to begin a “day-and-night street festival,” to bring guitars, harmonicas, drums, and any other musical instruments to celebrate their dissent. Heeding him, several hundred people formed protest camps all over the center of Moscow. Surprisingly, the police did respond to this initiative until later in day, when they detained Navalny, leader of the Left Front movement Sergei Udaltsov, Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov (in violation of his immunity status), several journalists, and even well-known Moscow socialite turned opposition leader Ksenia Sobchak. Gudkov and Sobchak were released later in the day, while Navalny and Udaltsov were sentenced to 15 days in jail. Officials sent out a clear message that getting permits for future protests will be more difficult than it has been in the past.
With the ongoing Euro crisis, the international response to the events in Moscow has been partially subdued. Most world leaders congratulated Putin on his return to the seat of power, Barak Obama and Angela Merkel among them, and only a handful raised issue with the situation.
In a recent interview with CNN, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. hoped that “the process of democratization will continue in Russia and that the rights of Russian citizens will be respected.”
“Well, certainly from the TV coverage I have seen the extent of the demonstrations. And I think it goes to the hope that all Russians have and that everyone who cares about Russia has that with the new term that President Putin is about to begin, Russia will be able to continue democratizing, protecting and respecting the rights of all Russian citizens, ensuring that there is a level playing field for political and economic participation,” said Clinton.
U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner called on protestors and police alike to avoid violence, emphasizing that Russian authorities should respect the citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. “We are troubled by reports of violence in Moscow during the protests on May 6th and by the arrests that have been carried out over the last three days. We are disturbed by images of police mistreatment of peaceful protestors both during the protests and after detentions,” he said.
Moscow, May 6th and 7th, 2012.
Media and expert analysts expressed a great deal of concern about the alarming news coming from Russia. In a column titled “Spring is Over,” Foreign Policy contributor Christian Caryl summarized this concern.
“Let me be clear about one thing: The protests were amazing,” he wrote. “I applaud the courage and initiative of those who took part, and I wish them the best of luck. Russia needs change. <…> But even though I sympathize with the protesters' concerns, I don't think [that] Arab Spring in Russia [is] going to happen.”
Caryl gives two reasons pointing support of his claim. The first one is the numbers from Levada Center surveys: “The pollsters asked Russians whether they intend to participate in protests with political demands. 81% said no.” His second reason is the price of oil, which, as Caryl noted, is a far more likely agent of change than public demonstrations. “If the price of oil tanks, all of Putin's economic promises to his people go out the window, and that vast silent majority cannot be counted on to remain quiescent.”
Caryl’s article resonated with an op-ed by Aleksey Makarkin, the Vice President of Political Technologies Center, a Moscow-based think tank. The op-ed, entitled “The Carnival Is Over,” was published in Yezhednevniy Zhurnal, an online magazine. In it, Makarkin claimed that since the most recent clashes between the OMON (special-purpose police) and the opposition on Bolotnaya Sqaure, the harsh reality has begun to set in that there are no winners in this conflict.
“It seems that no one won on May 6th. The events in Moscow will not attract new supporters to the opposition side, but they will strengthen the resolve of the opposition base <…> The regime will not reap any dividends either—many of its supporters do not approve of violence toward the protesters, and the extraordinary security measures displayed a lack of confidence in its own strength.”
Makarkin concluded that the rift in society will only grow, as the potential for dialogue diminishes and the powerful mutual distrust and anger increase. “And this is dangerous to the regime considering the predicted rise in social protest that could affect not only today's protesters, but also the conservative groups that voted for Vladimir Putin on March 4th.”
Gazeta.Ru came to a similar conclusion in their editorial “Permissible Turmoil.” They noted that on the eve on President Putin’s inauguration, people were warned that the authorities were not afraid of escalating the conflict, and the opposition, in its turn, demonstrated that it was ready to answer the call to battle, having moved past “peaceful rallies with balloons.”
“The people have been mobilized. Now there can only be war,” the editorial predicted. “One thing is clear: the March of Millions has revealed to the thousands who were involved in the altercations—many against their will—of the abyss between political intrigues and honest civil acts”, Gazeta.Ru journalists concluded bitterly.