Russian activists prevail in stand-off with officials
NY Times, Ellen Barry
MOSCOW — There was nothing grandiose about the demonstration in Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow on Sunday night.
The organizers stood on the back of a truck and spoke through tinny speakers. The audience was squeezed behind the metal fencing that has sliced up the plaza, a traditional gathering place for dissidents, so a parking garage can be built underneath.
But that was enough, for this one night.
For a year and a half, these activists have engaged in a standoff with Russian authorities as they have asserted their right to free assembly — demonstrating, essentially, for the right to demonstrate. Nine times the riot police have dispersed them and herded them onto buses.
This time, having gotten a permit in what appears to be a civics experiment for both sides, it was heady just to hear chants of “Russia without Putin” echoing off the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Some 1,500 people turned out.
“I consider it the end of one stage and the beginning of the next stage of the struggle,” said Oleg P. Orlov, director of the Russian rights group Memorial. “Today we will hold a demonstration. The next time we will ask them to remove the fences. After that we will demand the right to march.”
Though the so-called Strategy-31 movement is a tiny one, commanding only a fraction of the pro-Western elite, it has forced Russia’s leaders to rethink their approach to opposition. The authorities here remain nervous about any kind of street protests, a fear stoked by the pro-Western color revolutions in recent years in former Soviet republics.
But the arrests of the Strategy-31 demonstrators — among them Lyudmila Alekseyeva, 83, the grande dame of Russia’s human rights movement — had become such a drag on Russia’s reputation abroad that it forced the country’s leaders to back down, said Aleksei A. Venediktov, the director of Ekho Moskvy, a liberal radio station.
“They think concession is weakness and weakness leads to catastrophe; that is their real belief,” he said. Advocates were able to convince them that demonstrating was “a normal constitutional right and not a threat or a provocation.”
“It was not easy to convince them,” he added.
Ten days ago, in the political shuffle that followed the ouster of Moscow’s mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, city authorities offered to allow 200 people to attend the rally, held on the 31st day of every month that has one. The date honors Article 31 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. After organizers complained, the city granted a permit allowing 800 protesters and 200 journalists.
The government’s new position set off a venomous split between the group’s mismatched leaders, Ms. Alekseyeva, who has the hauteur and toughness of a veteran schoolteacher, and Eduard Limonov, a novelist who leads the extreme nationalist National Bolshevik Party.
Mr. Limonov sneered at Ms. Alekseyeva for agreeing to the government’s limitations, and he organized a competing rally on Sunday at the same spot, writing in his blog, “Let Lyudmila Mikhailovna, in her agreed-upon space, watch how we are hauled into paddy wagons.”
Ms. Alekseyeva responded starchily, “My rule is not to read commentaries on my actions that take an insulting tone.”
Several hundred of Mr. Limonov’s supporters showed up on Sunday on the periphery of the sanctioned protest. The police said they arrested 27 people at unsanctioned demonstrations, including some who were setting off fireworks or sawing through metal barriers.
In the past year, Russia’s leaders have been forced to discuss this group of protesters regularly. In an interview with the newspaper Kommersant in August, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Minister said that if they gathered without sanction, “They will be bashed on the head with a club,” and that a softer government position would only embolden them.
“If the objective is forcing concessions on the powers that be, and if the powers that be do buckle under, then provocations will be endless,” he said. “They will be staged again and again.”
But in mid-October, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy director of the presidential administration, said he saw little threat in allowing the event, remarking that the regular confrontations had become “a sort of burlesque.”
“If in Moscow, a city of many millions, 200 people want to gather exactly on the 31st, exactly on Triumphal Square, in these modest numbers, let them gather,” he said in an interview. “I am sure the new mayor will make the right decision. And it will be a decision in the spirit of the president’s policies.”
As the crowd dispersed on Sunday, and the frail Ms. Alekseyeva threaded her way out through rows of police officers, some protesters wondered whether the next gathering would be allowed.
Sergei Pashkevich, 48, who was passing the square on his way home, had not heard of the rally, but nodded his approval.
“I wouldn’t say they are a real force,” he said. “But you know, we need to listen to them every now and then. We shouldn’t just eliminate them from our reality.”
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