Russians Protest Putin's Rule

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It has been a long time since Russia seen such a melee. On Saturday at noon, defying the city authorities' ban on organizing an event, over 5000 people in St. Petersburg joined the anti-Putin "March of the Discontented," launched by the Other Russia opposition movement, a group of improbable allies brought together by Putin's repressive intransigence. The demonstrators marched in St. Petersburg, which happens to also be President Vladimir Putin's birthplace and showcase for his G-8 peers. A showcase Russian city hadn't seen that size of a protest for a decade. The violent street clash not only ushered in the year of parliamentary and presidential elections, it also called into question the Kremlin propagandists' claim that eight years of Putin rule has created stability in Russia.

Confined by the riot police to a downtown square, the protesters, who chanted "Russia without Putin!" "Down with the corrupt authorities!" and "Revolution!" broke through the police cordons and marched down Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's main avenue. Squad cars wedged in the angry marchers ranks, and riot police moved in, wielding clubs and throwing smoke grenades. It took several hours to disperse the crowds and restore police control over the area. The authorities later claimed that 50 protesters were detained. The Other Russia, however, states that at least two hundred protesters were taken into custody and beaten, with hundreds more violently mishandled in the street. Sergei Gulyayev, a member of the city's legislature, told the media that the OMON, Russia's special purpose militia, dragged him down as he was addressing fellow protesters so brutally that his head crashed over stone pavement and he recovered only in a squad car that took him to a precinct.

The reason for the street action is the sad reality of the Putin regime long denying its opponents any legitimate public fora. The mainstream media are subdued, and "the Parliament is not a place for discussion," as the Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov succinctly put it in 2005. When people are denied the right to discuss their life on the parliament floor or in the media, they're forced into the street — and into strange alliances. The Other Russia, in fact, is an unlikely motley amalgamation: members of the traditional democratic and liberal Yabloko party; new liberal factions, The United Civic Front and The Popular Democratic Union, led by former world chess champion Gary Kasparov and Putin's former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov respectively; and of the left radical extremist National Bolshevik Party (NBP), led by a flamboyant writer Eduard Limonov. While the liberal groups call for a return to democratic reform, the violence-prone NBP calls for a revolution. Not unlike the Soviet dissidents of old, they're united by their country's growing unfreedom.

While the OMON riot cops were dispersing and beating up the Other Russia in St. Petersburg, several hundred people gathered for a quieter but no less emotionally packed protest action in Moscow. They were mostly senior citizens, who argue that they have worked all their lives for the state and now are dying because they can't survive on the state's meager pensions.

Popular discontent in Russia rises along with prices and utility rates. And in the absence of legitimate expression, it pours out into the street, where protests are met with clubs and smoke grenades of the riot police. Two years ago, the authorities spent $12 billion to quell a nationwide wave of protests, caused by abrupt canceling of social benefits, in order to prevent the dissent from growing into conspicuous melees in main cities like the one this weekend. But the money doled out then has been now superseded by the growing costs of life. And a new such massive financial infusion might not prevent both Saturday's St. Petersburg's street fighting and a peaceful Moscow rally from becoming a harbinger of coming instability in the year of the tightly controlled national and regional elections.

It has long been a sad joke that if Putin can't raise pensions and wages for the disgruntled population, he can still resolve the problem by just giving one huge raise to the OMON. Russia's suppression machine is strong as ever, and most people still believe in their Good Czar President, even if they have lost confidence in the state institutions. Putin does not have much to fear — yet. However, if there is a lesson to draw from a history of Soviet experience, it's this: power and might don't matter much if the exhausted people lose their faith in their leader and allow his authority to disintegrate.