The Russian protesters who won't give up
The Guardian, Luke Harding
For the Kremlin it has become something of an embarrassment. On the 31st of the month, a group of noisy protesters gather in downtown Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square. They shout slogans against Vladimir Putin and his regime. The 31ers, as they are known, are seeking to defend Russia's much-abused constitution and in particular article 31 – meant to guarantee freedom of assembly.
Over this year Moscow's city government has devised various tactics to stop these rallies from taking place, ranging from the brutal to the surreal – the campaign is beginning to look like a convoluted game of chess for control of the square. The authorities have turned down all applications to stage the "Strategy-31" gatherings. And in time-honoured Russian fashion, mayor Yuri Luzhkov has sent in the goons, with riot police deployed on every occasion to arrest protesters and chuck them in the back of police vans. In May police broke a journalist's arm; in July officials came up with a rival event in the square – a car rally.
Ahead of the latest 31 gathering, these tactics have reached a new level of ridiculousness. The government last week announced it was building an underground car park underneath the square and fenced off the whole area. On Friday, two workmen could be seen slowly digging a small hole next to a statue of Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. It is clear that nobody is in any hurry to get the work completed, which could now drag on for years.
In retaliation, the 31ers have decided to take their protest global – with the first demonstration taking place today outside the Russian Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, London and in New York, Helsinki, Berlin and Tel Aviv. "We Russians living abroad cannot stand by quietly and watch as Russia gradually turns into a police state," Andrey Sidelnikov, organiser of the London picket, says. He adds: "In recent years, in Russia the government has consistently refused to citizens of Russia their legitimate right to assemble freely."
In the eight months since the rallies started, protesters have included elderly dissidents who fought against the Soviet Union and teenagers who were born in the 1990s, well after the collapse of communism. The protests rarely attract more than a few hundred people – although the rally in May drew a crowd of 2,000, which was violently broken up by police.
At some point, one hopes, Russia's authoritarian-minded leadership will have to come up with a creative response to Russia's vigorous social protest movement. A fence simply doesn't cut it.
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