Russian authorities’ manhandling of peaceful anti-government protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg is being seen by many here as proof that the Kremlin is reverting to its authoritarian ways.
But some say the protests also could herald the birth of a meaningful opposition movement after many years in which President Vladimir Putin increasingly has centralized power.
“More and more people are beginning to understand what’s happening in this country,” said Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian Jewish political analyst who attended the April 14 rally in Moscow. “A real political struggle will be taking place in Russia in the coming year.”
Hundreds took to the streets of central Moscow on Saturday and St. Petersburg on Sunday for unauthorized demonstrations, defying thousands of riot police.
At the head of the Moscow Dissenters’ March was Garry Kasparov, a former chess champion who has become a leader of the opposition United Civil Front group.
Kasparov, who is half Jewish, was detained minutes before Saturday’s demonstration began at Pushkin Square and was held for several hours. He was found guilty of holding an unauthorized rally and fined $40.
Authorities said they detained some 200 protesters in Moscow, but opposition leaders say as many as 600 people were arrested. Many were released quickly but were prevented from joining the demonstration.
An estimated 4,000 people took part in the Moscow rally, which was organized by The Other Russia, a coalition of opposition groups co-led by Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
Some 3,000 people turned out for the Dissenters’ March in St. Petersburg, where police said they detained 120 people.
Protesters in Moscow chanted “Russia without Putin!” “Freedom!” and “Give the elections back to the people!”
Violence erupted at both rallies as truncheon-swinging riot police who outnumbered protesters 2 to 1 chased and beat! demonst rators, including elderly people and journalists.
Albats says it is a sign that Russia is again becoming an authoritarian state that tightly restricts freedom of expression.
“What is happening in Russia is the hardening of the regime,” she said. “In coming months we’ll see more restrictions against mass media.”
Albats and other liberals believe the way the protests were broken up offers another example of growing government hostility toward peaceful dissent. But she said the rallies also heralded the birth of a real political opposition in Russia, where the few opposition parties and groups effectively have been sidelined during Putin’s reign.
Jewish activist Motya Chlenov said he came away from the Moscow demonstration with the feeling that the police actions made no sense.
“I don’t understand why they had to do this,” he said. “People who did not present any threat to anyone were treated as criminals. It all looked like a military operation.”
A Moscow Jewish journalist who photographed the Moscow rally agreed.
“It was shocking,” Pavel Push said. “The authorities broke up a rally of people, most of whom weren’t political activists.”
Push said the protesters were “typical Russian middle class.”
“Using force against these people was absolutely unnecessary,” he said.
The same day that Moscow police beat pro-democracy protesters, a Russian ultranationalist rally was allowed to go forward in the city without police interference.
Participants in the ultranationalist rally protested against immigrants and chanted anti-Semitic slogans while “police just stood idle and touched nobody,” Push said.
Chlenov the son of Mikhail Chlenov, a veteran Russian Jewish leader said the events in Moscow reminded him of a Jewish rally against anti-Semitism that his father organized in 1987, and which was banned by authorities. When the Chlenovs and a few others made it to the rally site, it was! filled with about 1,000 police and almost no participants, most of whom had been stopped en route.
Some predicted that the authorities’ heavy-handedness would backfire.
“Protests will not stop now,” said Asya Fazulina, a Moscow Jewish student and an activist in the liberal Yabloko party’s youth section. “Out of a sense of justice, people will continue to take part in similar protests.”