Beaten but not crushed: Russia’s opposition remains undeterred as newly sworn-in Putin clamps down

ingressimage_riotone.jpeg Photo: AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel

No sooner has Putin taken his third oath of office than he has offered a peek at what Kremlin opponents have to look forward to for the next six to 12 years: arrests, beatings, and paddy-wagons for the thousands of protesters who are still occupying Moscow’s streets.

Yet, too, of the ever-strengthening hopes that even as the battle has appeared lost and the outcome decided, an era of change is dawning on a country that has for too long watched its rights and freedoms trampled by a regime that seems to be replicating the suffocating parallel reality of Soviet time, set on an endless cycle of self-perpetuation.

The Russian capital has been the scene of tear gas fogs and melees between ordinary citizens and heavily armed riot police, known as OMON, and, later, round-the-clock protester camp migrations across the city center – with police busses following closely behind – since the Sunday before the inauguration, when between 50,000 and 100,000, in some estimates, took to the streets in protest of Putin’s return.

Open hostilities largely calmed down by late Tuesday, when what had begun as a thousands-strong “March of Millions,” clamoring for fair elections and cancellation of the presidential oath-taking ceremony, and soon erupted in altercations with riot police, grew into impromptu zigzags across downtown Moscow in groups of dozens or hundreds equipped with basic camping supplies to last them through the night.

Many dissenters – who had spent Moscow’s frigid winter gathering in the hundreds of thousands to protest rigged parliamentary elections and the possibility of another claustrophobic, crony-dominated Putin presidency – are still out there in Moscow streets.

They are exchanging messages on social networking sites, playing cat-and-mouse games with riot police, and are still determined to have their collective voice of protest heard even if it means the only response they get is truncheons and jack boots or the willful silence of official denial.

Sunday: Pre-inauguration mayhem

Dubbed “March of Millions,” the mass rally of May 6, on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, proceeded peacefully until, media reports say, a group of protesters tried to break through police cordons, resulting in violent altercations and numerous detentions, including of opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, and Boris Nemtsov. Many would be re-arrested in the following days.

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This, though the rally on Bolotnaya Ploshchad had been planned in advance and obtained the necessary permits from the authorities, was a sharp departure from the calm demonstrations of the past several months, with the authorities, protesters, and commentators still in hot dispute over which side is responsible for the violence that ensued.

A BBC report, citing witness accounts, said the police on Monday were blocking the protesters from crossing a bridge over the Moscow River, and clashes broke out when more people crowded towards the bridge and riot police wielding batons pushed demonstrators back towards the rally site.

A sit-in by the police lines was then launched by protesters, who demanded new elections and refused to leave until Putin’s inauguration was cancelled, the BBC report said.

The clashes soon escalated to open fighting, beatings, and sweeping raids across downtown Moscow.

“On Sunday and Monday, what was happening in Moscow was horrible, ‘mayhem’ is too nice a word to describe it,” environmentalist and civil activist Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona in an email interview, summarizing the events of May 6 and 7.

“The expectation was of just another peaceful demonstration. But people simply refused to obey at some point and gave in to a provocation. Provocations like this had taken place before [during mass protests last December and February], but people were behaving differently […] On Sunday, they just started reacting to the overall outrage. What followed then was carnage, plain and simple, with OMON, until late at night. And there were so, so many people,” Slivyak said.

According to a Moscow OMON spokesman, Lieutenant Alexei Kozlov, who spoke with Bellona in an email interview Tuesday night, the clashes resulted in approximately 650 arrests and detentions on May 6, 500 on May 7, and 200 on May 8, with many of the detainees being re-arrested several times.

Witness accounts reveal that OMON swoops on Sunday and Monday went beyond arrests of demonstrators openly voicing their opposition to Putin’s new term, and targeted people who merely looked like they may attend a protest, or just random passers-by.

In Slivyak’s words, the authorities turned to “vengeance, brutally beating or grabbing people all over the city for no reason at all – with the majority of beatings and detentions aimed at ordinary citizens who were not resisting and were keeping within the bounds of the law.”

Where and how the Monday rally ran off the rails is still under debate.

Olga Kostina, head of the Moscow Police Department’s Public Council, chose to speak on behalf of an unidentified “many” when she said demonstrators were to blame for a planned provocation that resulted in violence on Monday.

The council is a controversial organization created in 2011 to serve as a liaisons body between the public and law enforcement, but since has lost many members who hold weight with the public, and indeed much of public trust.

Kostina spoke on the phone during a live broadcast (in Russian) on the liberal, privately-owned TV station Dozhd. 

She said the organizers had created a bottleneck when they “refused to follow the route” the authorities had previously sanctioned for the march, and called what happened a provocation and “criminal and brazen behavior.”

A press release on the Moscow Police Departments website (in Russian) made similar claims of provocations and disobeying police orders. It said 29 police suffered injuries during the clashes on Bolotnaya Ploshchad, even as law enforcement were acting “with maximum restraint.” Still, the Internet is replete with footage and pictures suggesting evidence of just the opposite.

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“Can sitting calmly on the ground provoke the OMON into such carnage? Apparently, it can, and this seems to be the Moscow police’s position,” Slivyak said. “The police were clearly responsible for the massacre because just sitting on the ground is not the kind of action that warrants responding with force. Later, some among the protesters were resisting the police, but it is wrong to place responsibility for the conflict on those who suffered police attacks for no reason at all.”

Slivyak’s assessment was echoed in many Tweets and Facebook messages of the past days, including in a Monday post by civil activist Nikolai Belyayev of the Voters League, an association of civil initiatives fighting for fair elections in Russia:

“By having so savagely dispersed a peaceful demonstration, beating women, children, and the elderly, the powers-that-be gave up the right to any hint of legitimacy.”

Monday: Inauguration rampage

At points, however, police simply had to start emptying their jail cells of people wearing the white ribbons or pins or other improvised white insignias that have come to symbolize the loose confederacy of largely middle-class, well-educated antagonists of the new old regime, to make room for more.

This was not before – on the morning of the inauguration – a café called Jean-Jacques on Nikitsky Bulvar, said to be a place frequented by opposition figures, was raided by riot police with apparent intent to round up potential demonstrators.

According to video footage and witness accounts, police burst in, breaking tables and chairs and detaining, with physical force, patrons sitting outside, some of whom were there just having breakfast and had no white markers on them to suggest they had attended the ongoing protest actions or had any intention to. One of the detainees can be seen in the video yelling out “I was just walking down the street!..” as he is being taken to a police wagon.

Other reports say OMON similarly harassed visitors of a McDonald’s on Tverskaya Ulitsa.

A report by the Moscow Times says protestors had first gathered at the start of Tverskaya Ulitsa by the Hotel National in response to calls to meet on Manezh Square, only to find access blocked. Riot police then pushed them up the street, detaining people one by one as they moved up past the Ritz Carlton hotel.

When police moved the protesters farther up the road, the report said, people attempted to line Gogolevsky Bulvar, where Putin’s cortege was supposed to pass, in a rally of white ribbons.

Police, however, blocked the boulevard, and people moved up to Nikitsky Bulvar, where the restaurant raid occurred, the Moscow Times said. The report also said Putin supporters turned out in smaller groups, and minor scuffles occurred between the two camps.

Fights, raids, and random detentions continued into the night – all in an apparent attempt to prevent the presidential oath-taking ceremony from being marred by a massive show of indignation and protest.

“OMON troops became paranoid – they started seeing protest participants in mere passers-by,” said Slivyak of Monday’s events.

A ‘sweeping’ celebration

But the paranoia may have taken root even before the inauguration and apparently crept well beyond Moscow’s city limits.

Natalya Martyakova, 37, an accountant from St. Petersburg, was among the hundreds who flocked to Moscow from other cities to take part in the planned March of Millions on Bolotnaya Ploshchad, and said the bus she was travelling on was stopped numerous times by both police and officials in plain clothes suggesting special services. Passport data were copied for security reasons “on account of the upcoming inauguration,” Martyakova cited the officers as saying.

“I felt like a criminal. It was as if I was being told, ‘Keep quiet, stay home and keep quiet,” Natalya said in a conversation in St. Isaac’s Square in St. Petersburg, where she was among a small group of fellow dissenters late Tuesday night.

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“I hadn’t even gotten to Moscow yet, and had no banners or anything on me, but my ID was being checked just because I was going to Moscow.”

Martyakova, who says she is not an activist and belongs to no political parties, said she just “[doesn’t] agree with what’s going on and simply [wants] to live in a free country.”

Martyakova said she had personally witnessed ballot-box stuffing during the presidential vote last March: The voting station at which she was working as an observer allegedly added votes in Putin’s favor, following an implied, but unequivocal directive to secure the candidate’s victory. She said she felt insulted enough to stand up with others now, voicing her disagreement.

The protest in St. Petersburg has been on a significantly less visible scale, something that those who came for Tuesday night’s gathering in St. Isaac’s Square explained by a lack of charismatic leaders of the kind the capital now has – and the fact that so many choose to join demonstrations in Moscow.

And in Moscow, the general atmosphere, though charged with foreboding and animosity, was also eerily at odds with the silence that prevailed as Putin’s motorcade progressed to the empty expanse of Red Square for his swearing-in, and the hollow celebratory programming on Russia’s state-controlled television networks.

On the following day, ex-President Dmitry Medvedev would be confirmed as Putin’s prime minister, officially concluding the power swap that, in the eyes of many, does little more than perpetuate the absurdity not seen since the Soviet 1970s.

“The inauguration of Putin, who was supposedly chosen by the Russian people, was not just taking place amid mass protests, violence, and ruthless arrests – it was taking place in an emptiness. Part of the city was as if it had become a ghost town. Where the motorcade was to pass, there was nobody at all, empty as if after the apocalypse. Where were all those who were to welcome the president they had elected? Where was the jubilation of the masses?” Slivyak wrote in his email account to Bellona.

“Putin’s victory on election day turned into inauguration day’s defeat,” he added.

Tuesday: Cat-and-mouse games

That defeat appeared all the more striking because, faced with a very tangible risk of physical harm at the hands of the law enforcement or a night in detention, protesters remained in the streets until late Monday night, and beyond – they were simply not scared anymore.

By Tuesday, the dissent had morphed into a semi-free-flowing non-stop vigil – described by participants as gulyaniye, a term otherwise describing open-air festivities. Aided by the warm weather of early May, and in an atmosphere reported by the Moscow Times as “light and committed,” demonstrators and opposition leaders gathered in the Kitai Gorod neighborhood, later to roam from place to place, with OMON troops following in tow.

“We were walking all night,” Slivyak, who participated in the gathering, wrote Bellona in an e-mail. “In Kitai Gorod, near the presidential administration, there were some 2,000 of us. OMON then chased us away, we went to Chistiye Prudy, some two or three kilometers away. Then, OMON turned up there as well, and we came back to Kitai Gorod and stayed there. People are sleeping right there on the streets, sympathizers are bringing tea and sandwiches…”

The police and OMON, stretched thin after a day of misdirected violence, “stopped detention attempts briefly and retreated for a rest,” according to Slivyak. “Since the early hours of Tuesday, it became clear that the police were only acting when the numbers of those gathered exceeded what they understood as a ‘critical limit.’”

The protesters’ roaming and continued pursuit by the law enforcement remained a common sight in central streets and squares of the Russian capital on Tuesday as well, and, according to latest updates, on a smaller scale, on Wednesday.

Maxim Kolosvetov, a spokesman for Moscow police, told Bellona in a phone conversation around 7 p.m. Tuesday night that “the day was proceeding calmly” and most of those detained earlier for “minor misdemeanors” had been let go.

The police have been put on heightened security alert for the holiday period that started on Labor Day of May 1 and is to conclude with Victory Day festivities of May 9.

Asked about what guidelines the police were adhering to when dealing with the protesters, Kolosvetov said “disorderly behavior” was considered cause for detention. Warnings were to be issued to those “taking part in unsanctioned gatherings” and, if the order to disperse was disobeyed, the “organizers […] were invited” to proceed to a police precinct. By Tuesday evening, Kolosvetov said, all provocations and violations of order had been “successfully stopped.”

Kolosvetov had no comment on whether the police have been using excessive force since May 6.

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A first gleam of dawn?

“What is happening is a cat-and-mouse game,” the Voters League’s Belyayev said on Tuesday evening, speaking with Bellona by phone from Chistiye Prudy in Moscow. “People are getting organized in ‘mobile camps’ of sorts – finding a spot, stopping there, moving on when OMON shows up.”

“It’s been going on non-stop like this since yesterday,” Belyayev said.

According to Belyayev, OMON has been reacting in different ways: at times standing at a distance peacefully, and at other times, following the crowds, closing around, and bagging people with no apparent consistency to their choice of action.

“It’s unclear what [these detentions] depend on, they’re just grabbing anyone who happens to be in the way,” Belyayev said, who himself had “happened to be in the way,” and beaten, during the earlier rampage at Jean-Jacques on Nikitsky Bulvar.

“There are no organized speeches nor slogans after the Bolotnaya Ploshchad rally, and people are behaving peacefully – only starting to chant ‘Shame!’ when getting harassed by OMON.”

Then, around midnight on Wednesday, the tide seemed to have turned as reports started coming in that more and more OMON troops were refusing to make any more arrests.

What’s next?

However dire the picture painted by the latest clashes with the riot police – and the understanding that little might be done now that Putin has officially re-ascended his throne – hope that Russia is changing seems to be no less prominent a message among those who are still marching.

“It’s hard to make any forecasts right now,” Belyayev said as he spoke with Bellona on the phone Tuesday night. “The hope right now is for the next big rally, on Russia’s Independence Day, June 12. We’ll wait and see.”

The public shows its support, he said, with cars honking as they pass by. Nobody believes the official claims that unarmed protesters had been beating up OMON during the violence that had raged through Moscow on Monday.

Slivyak agreed that what is ahead is still unclear to many, but by these “night strolls, by not leaving today, we are changing this country right now. It is – maybe, has already – become a different country. At least, there is a chance, and it feels great.”

In a post in his blog on May 9, the popular writer and one of the opposition’s inspirational figures Boris Akunin announced a “literary” promenade for May 13, with some of the celebrities of Russia’s journalism, pop music, and belles lettres world joining for an “accelerated march” along the Boulevard Ring between two monuments to Russia’s greatest poets. A humorous caution posted by Akunin for the readers at the bottom – warning that any approach by the spectators would be at their own risk – was a reference to the law enforcement apparently still twitchy enough that they might consider any walking group against the law.

According to Slivyak, a re-evaluation has taken place: Between December’s parliamentary election and Putin’s re-election last March, the protests were slowly dwindling as a sense of being a desperate minority up against the entire might of the state was settling in. On May 6, that pessimism was what drove people out – to stand in unity one last time, no matter whether they would be a hundred or a hundred thousand. But thousands showed up, and the breakthrough served as an encouragement to reassess the goal – from blocking Putin’s re-election to ending Putin’s regime altogether.

Late Tuesday night conversations in St. Petersburg were a variation of this sentiment.

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“If Putin goes, if that at all is possible, nothing will change. The system he has built will not change momentarily, and people will not suddenly become honest all along the ‘power vertical,’” one of those gathered in St. Isaac’s Square said. “So what we are doing is creating a new civil environment […], a new system, new society, and new politics – we are working on that.”

“And we need to be going out – in order to unite our ranks, so that people see that we’re out there,” she said.

Russia has suddenly showed there are many thousands of those who are not afraid to stand their ground even in the face of violent intimidation, who want a different life and are intent on making it happen, Slivyak said.

 “We don’t yet understand fully what happened, but my feeling is that the Putin era is nearing its end – this is why people are coming together,” he added. “What kind of era awaits is now the question.”

Charles Digges contributed to this report from Oslo.

Maria Kaminskaya