The World From Berlin Just What is Putin Afraid Of Exactly?

Russian authorities cracked down heavily on opposition protests over the weekend, arresting the anti-Putin camp's leader, Garry Kasparov, and hundreds of other demonstrators in violent clashes. German commentators voice their concern about the oppressive path Russia is taking and ask: What is it that has Putin so scared?

It's been clear for a long time that Russian President Vladimir Putin tolerates no dissent in his increasingly autocratic Russia. And though that hasn't stopped the opposition movement from continuing to protest -- despite the authorities' repression of other voices -- it still keeps getting beat down.

This weekend saw two days of protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with the authorities clashing with opposition demonstrators. Around 2,000 people were reported to have turned out for the Moscow protest, but they were vastly outnumbered by around 9,000 police and troops on duty in a massive security operation. Approximately 3,000 people turned out for the Sunday rally in St. Petersburg, according to the news agency Reuters.

Around 120 people were detained in St. Petersburg Sunday, a day after about 170 people had been detained in Moscow on Saturday. Those arrested in Moscow included Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who has become the most prominent representative of the loose-knit opposition coalition Other Russia. Kasparov was later released after paying a small fine. Detainees also included journalists from German public broadcasting stations who were temporarily taken into custody -- a move viewed as press intimidation back in Western Europe.

Kasparov told the Associated Press that the fact that 2,000 people turned out for the Moscow demonstrations at all was "truly amazing." "It shows that the apathy in Russian society is gradually being replaced by very active, vocal protest," he said. Opposition protesters claim that Putin has clamped down on democratic freedoms since he came to power.

Observers predict a long period of confrontation between the authorities and the opposition movement as Russia approaches parliamentary and presidential elections, which are scheduled for December 2007 and March 2008 respectively. Western critics are concerned about Putin's increasingly autocratic control of the country, where he has quashed opposition and consolidated his control over the media. However, Putin still enjoys considerable popularity among the wider population.

Commentators at Germany's leading newspapers on Monday universally condemn the Russian crackdown on the opposition and ask what exactly Putin is afraid of.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The world is grappling with a Russian puzzle these days. President Vladimir Putin has an obedient administration, high approval ratings among the population and -- thanks to oil and gas revenue -- a pile of cash as well. So how can it happen that a few thousand peaceful anti-Putin demonstrators provoke the state into hysterical reactions? ..."

"It's only explicable in terms of fear, namely the fear that those in power in Moscow have themselves, and the fear that they want to spread. Russia is led by former and current intelligence agents, with the natural consequence that suspicion and the hunger for power hold sway over the state. From the perspective of the Russian leadership, it would simply be unprofessional to leave the opposition unobserved and unchecked. ..."

"But the reaction in the West is little more than a brief shudder. Putin's Russia is needed as an energy supplier and is much in demand as a partner, particularly by Germany. ... The demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg are therefore not only a nuisance for Putin, but also for his Western friends. The puzzle is not so hard to solve after all."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It was demonstrated once again on the weekend in Russia that in Putin's 'managed democracy' a principle of zero tolerance applies to political protests. ... Clearly it is not enough for the Kremlin that all the political movements that could possibly pose a danger to the president have been so harassed in the last few years that they barely play any kind of role in public life anymore."

"However, the current state of the opposition also gives pause for thought. The former world chess champion Gary Kasparov, who is more and more becoming the leader of the anti-Putin camp, has thrown his lot in with some unsavory characters, in particular the National Bolsheviks who are led by a man with a right-wing extremist past. ..."

"Such a country cannot be a strategic partner for Europe ... Europe should keep its dependence (on Russia), particularly in regard to energy security, as low as possible -- and not, as is currently the case, keep increasing it."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The events (of this weekend) make it clear that people and their rights get -- literally -- beaten down in Russia. A regime that takes recourse in such repressive measures and persists in discrediting itself is clearly afraid. As far as Putin and his entourage are concerned, the question is: What are they actually afraid of? The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections have already practically been decided in the sense of maintaining the status quo. The majority of Russians feel resigned and will choose a Putin-style autocratism over a democratic, but perhaps insecure, future. Neither has Putin anything to fear regarding pressure from the West. Flourishing trade and economic relations have long made human rights in Russia a mere side issue for politicians here."

"All the same, the regime's fight against Other Russia will continue with unremitting force ... The opposition needn't hope for support from outside. 'Tell your heads of government that we live in a police state,' Kasparov shouted to foreign journalists. This call too may well trail off, unheard."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"In Putin's worldview, political opponents do not have any right to exist. In Russian politics, it's not about a competition of ideas -- with the possibility of a change of government -- but rather about holding on to power. Any means of doing so is correct and justified -- the baton, the judicial sentence, or the brochures of the Putin youth movement Nashi, in which the opposition is condemned as enemies of the people and agents of the West -- just like in the time of Joseph Stalin. That doesn't mean that we are about to witness the return of the Great Terror, like in 1937. It does mean that Russia is on a course which is miles away from Western values. ..."

"The West would do well to call a spade a spade. False considerateness -- out of fear that the energy supplier might turn off the tap -- is out of place. The West owes the dissidents in Putin's empire open and honest words."

-- David Gordon Smith, 12:00 p.m. CET


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