“We are not giving up just when we started the engine,” declared a protestor during the March of Millions in Moscow on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration. That day, 700 protestors were arrested and more than 150 others, resisting nonviolently, were injured in a clash with riot police. It was the first time, in what had been a month-long standoff between police and protestors, that the regime flinched, making the dangerous mistake of turning its guns on its own citizens.
“They’ve pulled the trigger. Now it’s our turn to make a move,” said protest organizer Alexei Navalny as he was being hauled off to jail. Whether or not this provoked the regime further, one thing has become clear: The ruling elite have failed to predict the nonviolent chain of reaction set off by its May 6 crackdown.
In the weeks that followed, the center of the movement shifted to a protest camp set up near a statue of the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev in Moscow’s Chistye Prudy district. Held intentionally within the limits of the law, “Occupy Abai” was where numerous groups gathered to sing, read and discuss the burning issues of the day. Famous writers and artists led what were being called “control strolls,” which as the essayist, literary translator and author of detective fiction Boris Akunin explained, were intended “to make sure it’s still legal to walk around your own city.”
The official response to this display of free expression came at breakneck speed. The encampent was cleared on May 16, and the Russian State Duma quickly adopted a controversial anti-protest bill raising fines for unauthorized demonstrations and rallies up to 300,000 rubles per person, boldly contradicting the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Russian Constitution. According to Oleg Kozlovsky, one of the protest organizers, “the new law is literally depriving people of the right to simply walk down the street, let alone express political views.”
Despite being approved of and widely supported by the ruling United Russia party, the controversial bill roused much indignation among the political opposition. In a surprising act of civil disobedience, opposition legislators lacking the power to block the draconian law employed what they called an “Italian strike” — a tactic that forced the majority of lawmakers to spend a whole night arguing over hundreds of amendments. While this managed to briefly stall the bill’s enactment and at least provide symbolic resistance within the government, Putin signed it into law on Friday.
This move ensures that the already notorious law will be tested immediately, come Tuesday, when the second March of Millions takes place in Moscow on Russia Day — a national holiday celebrating the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Back in May, 50,000 people took to the streets — a far cry from the avowed “millions,” but organizers say the name is meant to be aspirational, that “one day more than a million will come out in the streets.” Local authorities say they won’t let the June 12 march exceed May’s turnout, but organizers hope to attract upwards of 100,000.
According to Boris Nemtsov, one of the opposition movement’s leaders, two key strategies are being considered at the moment. The first one represents more the aims of the Russian intelligensia interested in discussion and open debate. Opposition leaders Sergei Parkhomenko, Olga Romanova, Dmitry Bikov and Boris Akunin want large-scale referenda to be held in major cities all over the country with a focus on such issues as the contested State Duma elections in 2011, the effectiveness of election committees and the electivity of magistrates and Public Chamber members.
“We’ve learned how to disobey nonviolently,” says Olga Romanova, “keeping within the law, unlike the current regime. Now we have to defend our rights to think, discuss and decide.”
The second strategy for Tuesday’s March of Millions rally represents a more radical approach, as suggested by the movement’s hardline organizers Sergei Udalsov, Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Lev Ponomarev. Their goal is to attract as many socially active, involved citizens as possible and keep building a movement that can take more decisive direct action in the future.
In the opposition media, various Russian analysts are either supporting the movement or condemning its “purely Moscow” orientation. It has been suggested that its borders be broadened to involve other major Russian cities where rallies are being held, but there is no escaping the fact that Moscow is the social and political heart of Russia.
Ordinary people overwhelmed by their daily routine are watching the news and wondering whether they should join the protests as they did on May 6. The fear of being fined 300,000 rubles for participating in an unauthorized rally will certainly be a factor in their decision. But as June 12 approaches, the biggest question seems to be whether the protests will turn violent. Opposition newspapers and bloggers fear a repeat of the May 6 march, which saw some protesters provoke police or engage in property destruction only to be met with violent suppression. Already there are reports of Russian law enforcement readying their riot police units with new kinds of “non-lethal” weapons.
The second March of Millions has the potential to be a major turning point for Russian politics, revealing the extent to which the regime and the people challenging it are ready to engage in a dialogue. The protestors have made it clear, through their motto “Russia Day Without Putin,” that the notorious strongman represents the past and that Russia’s future prospects for civil freedoms and human rights will only come when he is gone.
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