"NO MATTER WHAT happens, get Kasparov." So shouted one riot officer Saturday during the violently disrupted Dissenters' March in Moscow, according to David Nowak of the Moscow Times, one of the few newspapers left in Russia that doesn't have its reporting redacted by the Kremlin. When Nowak asked another officer why "seemingly peaceful bystanders" were being hauled off the streets at random and arrested, he was told, "Do you want me to [expletive] beat you with a baton?"
Welcome to life under Vladimir Putin, in which political opposition is met with swift and arbitrary punishment, and not even a tendentiously arrived at 70 percent approval rating is enough to satisfy executive confidence.
You would never know, judging by most of the U.S. media coverage of Garry Kasparov's arrest and subsequent jail sentence of five days, that the Dissenters' March was actually part of a multi-city spate of protests undertaken by Russians fed up with bullying dictatorship. It speaks well of Putin's propaganda, which brands all of his opponents as part of a monolithic sodality of crackpots and "jackals," that the Other Russia Coalition only organized two of the rallies held over the weekend--those in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several others were independently staged in Nizny Novgorod, Tomsk, Orel, Pskov, Ryazan, Tula, and Kaluga.
As was the case under the Soviet Union, state suppression of public square-style democratic activity in today's Russia occurs well before the announced khappening. On November 21, Putin addressed 5,000 of his claque, speaking of his political antagonists thus: "They aren't going to do anything to anyone. Even now, they're going to take to the streets. They have learned from Western experts and have received some training in neighboring republics. And now they are going to attempt provocations here." And as if to send a signal that such "provocations" would not be tolerated, on November 23, the day before Dissenters' March, counterterrorism agents raided the offices of Kasparov's organization, the United Civil Front. According to the Other Russia's website, the agents said they were looking for "materials dedicated to disrupting civil order." What they instead found and confiscated were 5,000 stickers reading, "Vote for the coalition list."
The following afternoon, between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m., 2,000 people turned out onto Andrei Sakharov Square in Moscow with the proper permit to be there. The official slogans for the day were: "For Russia, Against Putin," "No Elections Without Choice" (Kasparov has been denied the right to run for president), and "Your Time Has Expired." The crowd dispersed calmly at around 2:15, with roughly 200 Other Russia activists planning to continue on to the building of the Central Election Committee, located near the Lubyanka metro station. Their goal was to deliver a petition condemning the abrogation of election rights in Russia and demanding that the committee--famously under the sway of Putin's United Russia--do its job and uphold the country's constitution. The banned Bolshevik National Party, part of the Other Russia's big-tent policy of anti-Putin inclusion, led this breakaway group, which was obstructed and redirected at every point along the streets by Moscow's OMON, or Special Purposes Police Squad. OMON's Soviet-era motto is: "We know no mercy and do not ask for any."
Kasparov, who had not accompanied the petition delegation, eventually wandered over to witness their confrontation with OMON, whereupon three officers, acting under specific orders by their commander, Major-General Vyacheslav Kozlov, broke past his phalanx of bodyguards and apprehended him. Marina Litvinovich, the chess champion's spokeswoman, and Denis Bilunov, a rally organizer, managed to get beyond the cordon to deliver the petition to CEC officials, who told them to expect a reply "within three days." Also arrested were Eduard Limonov, head of the BNP and a colorful anarcho-fascist who never met a chauvinism he didn't like, and Maria Gaidar, a member of the pro-market Union of Right Forces Party (SPS), who was soon released due to her immunity as a candidate for parliament.
Kasparov was right away taken to the Basmanny Rayon police station where he waited over an hour before his lawyers were allowed to see him. One, Olga Makhailova, never made it past the OMON cordon erected outside, and she says she had to wait again before being granted access to her client when he was removed to the Meshchansky District Court. Here's how she describes what happened next:
The trial--not an arraignment, but an actual trial--began all of 15 minutes after I'd arrived. That's all the time Garry and I were given to prepare beforehand. We immediately filed a variety of motions, asking for everything from a dismissal of the case to additional time to prepare for the trial, but the judge denied them all. Well, actually, she did partially satisfy one motion: We had asked for a delay at least until Monday so the defense could have the time to prepare documents and photographs to present as evidence. The judge decided to allow us a 30 minute recess in order to familiarize ourselves with the case materials presented by the prosecution. This was regarded as a "partial satisfaction" of our motion.
The other part of the motion asked for a public trial, which obviously was denied, although a few reporters were admitted inside the courtroom. As if to heighten the farce of what promised, ab initio, to be a completely biased and doctored legal proceeding, the bulk of the prosecutor's evidence relied on supposed individual statements made by the three officers who arrested Kasparov. Here's the thing: two of those statement were identical, while the third came in two forms--handwritten and typed--the contents of which were totally different from each other. The judge also denied testimony of defense witnesses, all of whom were inconveniently stationed outside the courthouse, and Makhailova says that the documents proving the rally had been sanctioned by the city were not allowed to pass through the OMON cordon. Kasparov was charged with organizing an "unsanctioned demonstration against President Putin" and resisting arrest. The judge took 15 minutes to render a verdict and sentence of five days imprisonment in Petrovka 38, Moscow's police headquarters. Immediately following his sentencing, Kasparov's defense filed the expected appeal, which, by law, has to be adjudicated within 24 hours. The court waited until late Monday to deny it.
Kasparov says he hasn't been mistreated in jail and, at least by the looks of most of the photos and video footage of his arrest and "trial," he retains both his dignity and sense of irony about true justice in the era of "managed democracy." According to one of his other lawyers, Karinna Moskalenko, Kasparov has wisely shunned all food and water provided to him by the authorities, going on what may be history's first self-preserving hunger strike, and he has been given no phone call or visitation rights. Ominously, members of the pro-Kremlin youth movements, who have decamped outside the prison, have been proffering a "Parcel for Garry," said to consist of bread and black tea. I wouldn't eat or drink that, either, and such a seeming gesture of magnanimity on the part of paid stooges of the president has been punctuated by their constant harassment of United Civil Front supporters, to which the Moscow police turn, as ever, a blind eye.
The events in St. Petersburg on Sunday were uncannily similar. The rally there, too, was attended by about 2,000 people, of which the Other Russia claims 300 were detained. (The city puts the estimate at 100). Organizers were denied access by City Hall, however--despite such access routinely being granted to pro-government rallies--to march along Nevsky Prospect and terminate in front of the Winter Palace. Traffic was cited as the main concern. Nevertheless, brave marchers acted according to their script at 11 a.m., and this time, police swooped down within minutes to start rounding everybody up. Here is what Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, probably meant when he referred to the authorities' "heavy-handed" methods in dealing with peaceful protesters. The St. Petersburg Times reports:
The police vigorously seized both activists and peaceful pedestrians who were neither holding signs, shouting slogans or trying to break through police cordons.
Those detained were pushed into police vehicles. Among those detained were frail-looking pensioners staring in shock at the chaotic events around them.
Officers also stopped people for what initially looked like routine document checks. But their documents were perfunctorily scrutinized and a number were thrown into vans.
Among those bigwigs arrested were Maxim Reznik, leader of the pro-democracy Yabloko Party, which has suggested that police planted their own agents, masquerading as unruly, flag-wielding National Bolsheviks, to give cause for a more severe crackdown. (Lending credence to this accusation is the fact that these men were promptly released by the police.) Boris Nemtsov, the outspoken former deputy prime minister and SPS leader, was also taken in shortly after trying to talk with journalists outside the Hermitage Museum.
Comes the question: Why is Putin doing this, and incurring international censure, with an almost guaranteed landslide victory awaiting his party next month? He's both arrogant and surfeited on what he believes--largely because of his self-contrived personality cult--to be political invincibility. As he's more or less phrased it, the forthcoming election is a referendum on his rule and the future direction of Russia. Further, he realizes that George Bush, Gordon Brown, and Bernard Kouchner, all of whom spoke in almost obscenely cautious tones about last weekend's annihilation of free assembly, are powerless to challenge him. This is why Putin's encore performance was the paranoid and deranged charge that the U.S. State Department pressured the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to withdraw their election monitors for the Duma vote in order to cast doubt on its legitimacy. (It would have been easier for Foggy Bottom to await the reports of widespread rigging and corruption, but never mind that.)
"We will not allow anyone to poke their snotty nose into our affairs," said the man who has actively undermined the franchise in Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In fact, those monitors were recalled because Russian election officials--the very same flunkies to whom the Other Russia delivered its reform petition--purposefully delayed issuing them visas, thereby making it impossible for them to invigilate the campaigns and media coverage leading up to the election. How convenient, particularly when the director of the Leningrad oblast regional electoral commission has cited eight violations of electoral law in his purview, including various attempts to purchase absentee ballots. Even Vladimir Churov, the Putin-backed head of Russia's Central Electoral Commission, who helped peddled the sham monitor recall story, confirmed that in many regions, voters were being offered between 300 and 400 rubles ($41) for their absentee ballots, and in Krasnogvardeisk, government employees were being encouraged to use them to vote.
Forget Florida in 2000: The mere registration of an absentee ballot in Russia in 2007 counts as an actual vote. The objective is to boost turnout since, as the political analyst Alexei Makarkin told the Associated Press, "The plebiscite will become a mockery if only slightly more than half of the people vote and if only 60 percent of those vote for United Russia." And it seems the Kremlin, via its newly appointed proxies, the regional governors, have taken a special interest in seeing that public sector employees--doctors, lawyers and schoolteachers--are asked which of their relatives and friends plan to pull the lever for United Russia. Bosses have been breathing down their workers' necks to ensure an outcome favorable not only to the motherland but to continued employment. A characteristic example of such middle managerial intimidation is this one:
A teacher in St. Petersburg said the school administration told staff members to get absentee ballots from their neighborhood polling stations ahead of the election. They are to vote together Sunday at a polling station at the school.
"They didn't tell us necessarily to vote for United Russia, but you can read between the lines," said the teacher, who was willing to give only her first name, Yelena, out of fear of being fired.
That's what the new loyalty oath in Russia looks like. It's also a fair barometer of how opinions are solicited and tracked on behalf of the nation's "most popular politician." Catherine the Great, a repressive czar beloved by Western liberals such as Voltaire and Diderot, once remarked of her people, "National pride created, among a nation ruled autocratically, a sensation of liberty that is no less conducive to great deeds and to the welfare of the subjects, than to liberty itself." The KGB czar seems intent on killing the mere sensation.
Michael Weiss is associate editor at Jewcy magazine.