Monday, December 29, 2008

Russia’s response to crisis: Crackdown

Russia's response to crisis: Crackdown

17 December, 21:12 James Marson, Kyiv Post, Staff Writer

Russia's response to crisis: Crackdown
Police officers in St. Petersburg,
Russia, detain a demonstrator during a
peaceful anti-Kremlin protest on Dec.
14. Police broke up a similar
opposition rally that day in Moscow

Use of force is preferred method against protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg

MOSCOW – In Ukraine, politicians have debated the International Monetary Fund loan and anti-crisis measures in full public view. In Russia, the effects of the crisis have been hushed up, and an opposition protest on Dec. 14 was violently crushed by police.

"We're back to where we started," said Dmitry, 45, who attended the unsanctioned protest on Dec. 14 and declined to give his surname. "We had sausage and repression in Soviet times as well."

The "sausage" has been Russia's recent economic boom, built on high oil prices. But the global crisis has hit the country hard, and the sausage appears to be running out, as the price of oil has dived from a high of $147 per barrel in July to under $50. With next year's budget calculated on the basis of an average of $95 per barrel, analysts say that Russia's failure to diversify away from oil has left its economy weak.

Not that you would know it from watching television. While Ukrainians have been able to watch debates over the unfolding political and economic drama on television and in the press, Russians have been presented with a sea of calm. The word "crisis" was reportedly blacklisted from use on television in October and references to the global turmoil are usually accompanied by a statement blaming the United States for the problems.

In his annual, televised question-and-answer session at the beginning of December, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to reassure Russians that the impact of the crisis would be minimal, and blamed the United States for the crisis. "The crisis began in the United States, whose financial and economic policies led to the crisis that infected the economies of practically all major countries of the world," he said.

"The authorities are like a person who has been diagnosed with cancer who refuses to believe that it's terminal," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst who was ousted as director general of NTV during Putin's presidency. "Russian leaders and the media have tried to convince the public that there is no crisis at all."

But the squeeze is already being felt in the private sector. A November poll by the Levada Center revealed that 20 percent of the working population has been affected by layoffs, salary cuts or unpaid leave. There is increasing dissatisfaction with the authorities, who have relied on increases in material wealth to boost their popularity.

"Putin is Teflon-covered. The things he is responsible for never seem to stick," Kiselyov said. "But it can't go on forever. If the crisis continues, people will start opening their eyes. Then he will have to answer for all the disproportions and mistakes." A large-scale survey by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) at the end of November suggests that, on average, 39 percent of people across the country are dissatisfied with the authorities, reaching 54 percent in some regions. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed said they were prepared to take part in a strike.

In November, sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher wrote in the financial daily Vedomosti of a possible scenario next year in which the closure of a factory leads to protests and the complete paralysis of authorities in a provincial town, followed by the spread of protests to Moscow. Vedomosti was warned by the media watchdog, the Federal Service for Oversight over Communications and Mass Media, for inciting extremism with the article.

The authorities, it appears, are becoming concerned. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month ordered law enforcement agencies to suppress any social unrest connected with the crisis. "If someone tries to exploit the consequences of the financial crisis … they should intervene, bring criminal charges. Otherwise, there won't be order," he told senior Interior Ministry officials in St. Petersburg.

At the protest on Dec. 14, organized by opposition movement Other Russia, police seemed keen to put his words into action. The protest had been banned by local authorities (a nationalist protest on the evening of Dec. 12 had been allowed to go ahead), but dozens of people still turned up at Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. They were met by hundreds of police officers, reinforced by feared OMON special police units.

The arrests began immediately, with the police detaining several activists as they arrived. When violent attempts to tear a placard of an elderly lady with a crutch brought cries of "Shame!" from the crowd, the police moved in to violently seize those shouting loudest, carrying them off and stuffing them into waiting vans.

"I came here by chance," said Galina Belova, 52, who stopped to watch as she passed by with her husband. "I can't believe what they are doing."

One woman was dragged off by her hair and another protester was hurled to the ground, where he hit his head. The arrests became increasingly arbitrary, as the police asked everyone in the area what they were doing there. A reporter from the Moscow Times newspaper was among dozens arrested. "There were isolated attempts at hooliganism and illegal activity, which were suppressed in time by law enforcement officers," a spokesman for the Moscow police force told Interfax news agency.

The concentration of power in the hands of Putin and his allies allows them wide scope for action, unlike in Ukraine. "Luckily for the Ukrainian people, political power is not monopolized in one group as it is in Russia," said Kiselyov, the political analyst.

This includes changing legislation. Last week, the Duma voted to end jury trials for cases of terrorism or treason. On Dec. 12, a bill was submitted proposing to expand the definition of treason to "a deed aimed against the security of the Russian Federation, including her constitutional order, sovereignty, territorial and state integrity."

Kiselyov said these moves reminded him of 1937, the start of Josef Stalin's Great Purge, when any public criticism of the authorities could be interpreted as high treason. "It reflects certain trends in the corridors of power. People in the Kremlin and the government are playing with these ideas of how to deal with the opposition."

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