The Empire Strikes Back: Putin Sends in the Storm Troopers

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

A member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Stal (Steel) wearing a Darth Vader mask beats a drum along with others during a rally in downtown Moscow, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011.

Vladimir Putin is far from panic, but the reaction of his government shows it is quite alarmed at the post-election protests this week in Russia's biggest cities. On Tuesday night, the unrest in Moscow continued. Out of about 2,000 demonstrators in the streets, more than 500 were arrested, many of them beaten, stomped or dragged along the asphalt by riot police. It was a tense sequel to Monday's 7,000-strong demonstration, which was the largest ever against Putin's rule.

Dozens of journalists were also detained, and around midnight, Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Russia's leading radio station, Ekho Moskvy, drove around town trying to bail them out. In his car on the way to a police station in the north of Moscow, he told me he had been in contact that day with the government's main ideologues, a weekly ritual for most of Russia's leading newsmen. "The bulk of them are badly spooked, or at the very least startled by what is happening," he said. "They didn't expect it would go this far."

The last two days have inspired lofty comparisons among the organizers to this year's Arab Spring revolts. But that comparison seems premature. The opposition remains leaderless and disorganized, while the government showed that it has plenty of tools to push back the tide of dissent.

For one thing, it has the military, which was called in to reinforce the police on Tuesday for the first time in many years. The notorious Dzerzhinsky Division, a motorized infantry unit named after the founder of Stalin's secret police, was brought into Moscow "to ensure the safety of citizens," said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. Police and riot troops were also out by the thousands, and water canons were seen driving in the center of Moscow, where the opposition held its second rally in as many days. But at the forefront of the government's reaction was its peculiar brand of soft power — the pro-Kremlin youth groups shipped in from around the country to drown out popular dissent.

The biggest of them is Nashi, or "Ours," which the Kremlin formed in 2005 to help prevent that year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine from spreading to Russia. Since Sunday, the day of Russia's parliamentary elections, several thousand of them have been housed in a pavilion at Moscow's largest fairgrounds, having been brought in by train and bus from as far away as Siberia. "The conditions are pretty spartan," said Anastasia Melnik, 18, who came from Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles northeast of Moscow. "But we're not supposed to complain." On Tuesday afternoon, they rallied near Red Square to defend the victory of the ruling United Russia party, which barely held on to its parliamentary majority in Sunday's elections. In front of a stage covered with images of President Dmitri Medvedev, who led the party's electoral ticket, roughly a thousand pro-Kremlin activists chanted and beat drums to a bizarre soundtrack — the Darth Vader theme from the movie Star Wars — which was blasted through the speakers toward the Kremlin. A few of the activists came dressed as Storm Troopers.

Most were 18 or 19 years old, and their main reward for voting in Sunday's elections and then attending the pro-Kremlin rallies, they said, were free meals at McDonald's and a chance to tour the capital, a rare treat for Russia's provincial youth. None of them had any strong opinions about politics, and several admitted that they had been trained by Nashi officials to repeat stock phrases to journalists: "Medvedev is great. Putin is awesome. Russia is doing fine," said Alyosha, from the city of Lipetsk, 270 miles away, with a sarcastic smile.

Pacing around the phalanxes of drummers was Vasily Yakimenko, the Kremlin's coordinator of youth policy and Nashi's founder, who told me that the opposition had "crossed the line" on Monday night when they rushed the lines of riot police and tried to march on the Kremlin. Asked if his demonstrations were meant as a response, he said, "Look, those people need to understand that we have a chance right now to resolve this situation without the use of force. They have a chance to calm down and voice their complaints in a constructive manner."

But there was little in the way of constructive dialogue on Moscow's Triumphal Square, where the pro-Kremlin youth groups and the opposition protestors confronted each other on Tuesday night. Massed in tight ranks around the square, the Nashi activists chanted, "Medvedev, Victory!" to the sound of hundreds of drummers. Riot police surrounded them, keeping back hundreds of anti-government protestors as they pushed toward the square, chanting "Shame!" and "Putin is a thief!"

Maxim Mishchenko, the founder of another pro-Kremlin youth group, Young Russia, and a former parliamentarian for the United Russia party, was in the square coordinating the activists, and told any journalist who would listen that the opposition protests are a U.S.-funded attempt to overthrow the Russian government. "History is a war of civilizations," he said. "And the U.S. is trying to do the same thing here that they did in Serbia, in Ukraine and in Georgia. They want another Orange Revolution, another Arab Spring." U.S. Senator John McCain did not help deflate such rhetoric when he addressed Putin on Monday through Twitter: "Dear Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you." Mishchenko said this was typical of U.S. bravado. "The democracy we chose in the 1990s has a very vulnerable spot — elections — and that is where they are trying to hit us today."

As he spoke, riot police kept dragging young demonstrators into police vans, lifting them up if they resisted. The leaders of Russia's token opposition parties also attended the anti-government protest. They had not done so on Monday night, but showed every desire by Tuesday to ride the wave of popular discontent that has arisen without their help. "I want to support those who were arrested yesterday, to support this desperate expression of anger," said Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the Yabloko Party, which garnered 3.5% of the popular vote on Sunday. Minutes later, he was also arrested. Ilya Ponomaryov, a parliamentarian for the Fair Russia party, which got 13%, said he was punched by plainclothesman on the square, and briefly detained until he flashed his parliamentary ID, which gives him immunity from prosecution. "[United Russia's] decision to rig the elections leaves us no choice but to take to the streets," he said, still trying to catch his breath.

But the leaders of Russia's banned opposition groups were not on Triumphal Square on Tuesday. All of them were arrested before they got there, and Alexei Navalny, the blogger-activist who has inspired many in Russia's Internet generation to move from the blogosphere to the streets, was sentenced on Tuesday to two weeks in jail for disobeying police orders during Monday's demonstration. That left the protesters leaderless, and they dissolved by Tuesday night into roving groups, periodically blocking major streets in the center of Moscow before being chased down and arrested by police.

On Saturday, the opposition will hold another major rally in Moscow, and more demonstrations are planned for other cities in the coming days. But the greatest challenge for the government now will be to quiet the protests before March, when Putin is set to be elected for a third term as president, allowing him to rule at least until 2018. "That will be the crucial point," said Venediktov, the editor of the radio station. "On the one side there are those who believe that the protests will die down on their own after a bit of shouting in the streets. On the other side is the group that wants to stamp them out immediately. But the mass in the middle aren't sure what to do, and yes, of course they are afraid."