On Saturday, former chess champion Garry Kasparov and dozens of others were arrested during a protest rally in Moscow that drew several thousands. Kasparov was charged with organizing an unauthorized demonstration and sentenced by a Moscow court to five days imprisonment. Following his sentence, Kasparov, one of President Putin's most outspoken critics, said, "What you've heard is all lies." Two riot police testified that they had been ordered to arrest Kasparov. The wife of one of the other protestors, Sergei Konstantinov, claimed that he had been beaten unconscious in the courthouse and then carried out by police.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack expressed concern over the Russian authorities' "aggressive tactics" and the arrest of opposition figures.
On Sunday, violent repression and arrests ended protest rallies at Palace Square, near the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Reports over the number detained varied -- the Russian police spoke of "dozens" while demonstrators estimated 200. Hundreds of police, armed with shields and truncheons, went at the demonstrators who were yelling "Russia without Putin." Among those detained was Boris Nemstov, a contender for the presidential elections in March. He was released soon after.
His party and several others have complained of constant harassment during the election campaign. The Kremlin is doing everything within its power to ensure that Putin's United Russia party wins the elections on Dec. 2. Speculation is rife that Putin hopes to maintain a hold on power beyond May, when term limitations force him to step down from the presidency. Should his party win elections in December, however, Putin may take over the position of prime minister.
The arrests on Sunday began when several young men marching from the headquarters of the Yabloko party towards the rally on Palace Square began flying flags for the banned National Bolshevik Party. Yabloko spokeswoman Yevgenia Dillendorf speculated that the provocateurs had been planted by the regime to justify the wave of arrests that followed, 10 of whom were parliamentary candidates for Yabloko.
Alexander Shurshev, one of the Yabloko candidates detained, said that some of those detained were driven to and released on the city's outskirts, while others were held at police stations. "Riot police beat me over the head with clubs and I lost consciousness," he told Associated Press.
Russia's national television stations, all of which are under state control, ignored the opposition rallies entirely. Germany's papers are more dismayed than surprised by this latest round of repressive measures.
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"With the arrest of Gary Kasparov in Moscow, the state power overstepped its bounds. The opposition leader has been silenced often enough, but this time he was sentenced to five days imprisonment in summary proceedings that made a mockery of legal process. Moscow has now permanently discredited itself in the eyes of the world. That the Kremlin is willing to take this risk, suggests bad times to come. Until now, the powermongers had at least tried to maintain appearances and defend the claim to be part of European civilisation."
"Kasparov is just the beginning; the end will be a 'time of chaos' in which Russia loses its connection to the modern world once and for all. ... For 300 years, Russia has been panting, killing itself to catch up with Europe. Putin is putting an end to its struggle. It's going to be unpleasant."
The business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Many in the West seem to have gotten used to the fact Kremlin critics are repressed, beaten and put away in Putin's Russia. Even the Social Democrats in Germany's federal government don't want to come down too hard on the Kremlin boss -- although political repression has assumed alarming proportions."
"It's all the more shocking that the opposition is ... not able to pose a threat. Their ability to mobilize is too weak, both at the voting booth and on the streets. Only a few hundreds took part in the massive demonstrations on the weekend."
"Putin can actually laugh at this joke of an opposition. What's frightening is that he goes at it with full force anyway -- meaning that the Kremlin doesn't hesitate to go after the big names, like the former vice-premier and presidential candidate Boris Nemzov, who was arrested for a brief period yesterday. The message here is clear as glass: Criticism will be nipped in the bud, no matter who it comes from."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Kasparov has finally succeeded in getting the attention of the West for a moment. But in Russia, his voice is too weak to be heard, which makes the brutality of state power all the more suprising. It seems that Russia's leadership is less afraid of international criticism than whatever is not fully under its control within its own borders. In reality, Putin and his accomplices have no faith in the stability of the system they love to laud. They are not willing to leave anything to chance -- definitely not free elections."
"In the polling booths, Russia's citizens will be presented with one choice: to legitimate the existing order. That's why the Kremlin's propagandists aren't talking about the elections any more. They've turned the elections into a referendum on support of Putin. In the dictatorship of the law, the highest court finds nothing to suggest that the President is abusing his office for the benefit of his party in these elections. In Russia, laws are something like wall-to-wall carpeting -- they always lead to whatever is required. And if that's not enough, they're curtailed. Putin had the election laws changed to ensure that his opponents have no chance. Most parties have been shut out of the elections entirely. And Russia's unwillingness to host international observers bodes ill."
-- Naomi Buck
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