Russia A Growing Protest Movement Challenges Putin
Liberals and left-wing radicals are joining forces in Russia to protest the controversial policies of President Vladimir Putin. They want greater democracy in the former communist land and to end the Kremlin's "lies and hypocrisy." But they could face a challenge from a Putin-alligned youth group packed with soccer hooligans.
The "heroic romantics"
Michael Obosov wears a cheap wool cap to shield himself against the icy Russian win. Walking down St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospect, the 21-year-old carries a handmade cardboard sign reading, "We need the truth." A diminutive young man, he doesn't look like the vanguard of a revolution.
But in January, Obosov, a student at the local technical university, founded a protest group called "Moving without Putin." The name is a jab at the youth organization "Idushchiye Vmeste," or "Walking Together," a Kremlin-linked group loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The new opposition group has seven key points in its founding charter. It wants to reach "free people who want to live in a free country." It condemns "lies and hypocrisy," is disgusted by "state propaganda" and puts a critical distance between itself and "czars and leaders."
Obosov, the slender student leader, has a relaxed demeanor and has an understated sense of humor. The university dean recently called him in for a talk and warned him against speaking out against Putin or the war in Chechnya in public. Such incidents don't bother Obosov -- he's used to them. Indeed, they evoke the same kind of fatalistic reaction he showed when Kremlin-backing hackers recently attacked his group's Web site, leaving behind nasty Russian slurs.
But often it's Obosov who gets the last laugh. At demonstrations of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, he has been known to unfurl banners with slogans like "Yes to the Kremlin's arbitrariness," which tend to draw chuckles from crowd, but stern looks from security police. It usually doesn't take long before they take him into temporary custody.
The scrappiest of start-ups, Obosov and his followers have neither an office nor a cash box for the organization. Nevertheless, that hasn't kept them from attracting the interest of hundreds of people each day through their Web site www.noputin.com. The group is even finding resonance in such far-away provinces as Kazan, Omsk or Yekaterinburg -- especially among students. And like-minded people have launched similar protest projects in other cities, like the Web site "Say No!" in Moscow, which attracted more than 45,000 visitors within the first few weeks of its launch.
From the Web out into the streets
Lately, what begins in Cyberspace has often been pouring out into the streets. In mid-January, several thousand demonstrators forced traffic to a screeching halt for hours at Nevsky Prospect, the heart of St. Petersburg's commercial district, and there were even shoving matches between protestors and police. Retirees angered by a recent government decision that eliminated their free use of local buses and subway trains, joined the students in their protest, showing the anti-Putin sentiment hasn't been isolated to rabble-rousing academics. One reason the university elite have taken to the streets is out of protest over recent statements by Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, a close Putin ally, that students will no longer be exempted from mandatory military service.
In early March, masses of citizens in the southern Russian city of Voronezh took to the streets to protest failed social reforms. Meanwhile, in the city of Ufa, in Bashkortostan in the Ural Mountains, some 5,000 people spoke out against the corrupt clan rule of a local governor installed by the Kremlin. Examples like these are sending a clear message: The Russians, traditionally known to be devoted to their state and used to having to endure suffering, are showing, and releasing, a striking amount of pent-up anger these days.
Ironically, it's in St. Petersburg, where former KGB officer Putin began his post-communist career as mayor, that the opposition has been protesting every week. Sometimes the opposition speaks out against the war in the Caucasus, other times against the government's tight leash on television broadcasters . Slowly, the street rebellion is scraping away at Putin's image as a mover and shaker, as a successful leader who gets things done. In January, even government-loyal pollsters said that only 65 percent of Russians trust Putin, 19 percent fewer than in May.
In voicing their outrage, Putin's opponents aren't shying away from some rather strange alliances. Increasingly, the liberal opposition is forming the political equivalent of marriages of convenience with left-wing radicals. In forming the action front St. Petersburg Citizens' Resistance, Obosov, for example, is sitting harmoniously next to comrades from the National Bolshevik Party, headed by the author Eduard Limonov, 62. According to party records, the group has 20,000 members, but it has so far scared off most law-abiding citizens with slogans like: "A dead bourgeois is a good bourgeois." But since the sweeping victory of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Limonov has set his followers on a new course. The graying, veteran rebel, who spent more than two years behind bars after being convicted of alleged arms sales, has his charges promote a "parliamentary republic," and he verbally hammers the "Soviet guys with dead eyes."
In August, Limonov's supporters, the so-called "Limonovzy," occupied the Russian Health Ministry in Moscow, and a few months later they blocked the Kremlin's presidential administration building, causing the government to respond with brute force. A Moscow court sentenced seven Limonov followers to five years in jail for occupying the Health Ministry, a strike which saw Putin portraits fly out the window. And 31 alleged participants in the December Kremlin blockade -- among them 16- and 17-year-olds -- are currently in jail and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Moscow-based journalist Anna Politkovskaia says it can only mean one thing that the National Bolshevists are gaining so many new followers: "Russian youth are fast radicalizing."
Alexey Navalni, managing director of the opposition Yabloko liberals, also praises Limonov's supporters, calling them "heroic romantics" and well-organized allies. When they head out to the joint rallies, the National Bolsheviks bring with them the grassroots following the liberals lack.
Mobilizing the soccer hooligans
The developments in the opposition movement have caused Vladislav Surkov, 40, the deputy chief of the Kremlin's administration, to warn of a "fifth platoon of left-wing and right-wing radicals" that is "conspiring to annihilate the Russian state." Putin's man for "matters of domestic policy," Surkov controls the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia Party, and his appearance evokes memories of a communist ideology secretary from the dark Soviet-era days. Working with his former employee Vassily Yakimenko, Surkov is currently building a new youth organization to be called "Naschi," or "those of us."
A zealot for stability and order, Yakimenko's biggest success to date was his role in leading the Putin fans in Idushchiye Vmeste. Over and over again, he succeeded in drawing thousands of kids to Red Square, where they were happy to sport t-shirts bearing the president's face.
But the club, whose members have to promise that they won't smoke, cuss, or torture animals, had merely built a dubious reputation of being something of a die-hard, Kremlin-loyal sect. But if Surkov has his way, the youth club will boost its own profile and counteract the popular protest scene -- all while operating under the anti-fascist banner. Surkov's followers will be backed by masses of football hooligans currently being recruited for this purpose.
Meanwhile, the National Bolsheviks are preparing for the possible confrontation. At a recent evening meeting in a Moscow basement apartment, the party's leaders left little doubt that they will be ready to meet the fighting call of Putin's followers. Standing in front of about 100 mainly young men and under a banner reading "Freedom or death," party chief Limonov sounded off: "If the Kremlin wants a street battle, it can have it."
Translated from the German by Patrick Kessler