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Not dead yet: Russia’s opposition rallies in first major protest since Nemtsov assassination

Thousands gather for “Change the Power” Protest in Marino, Moscow, Russia, Sept, 20, 2015 (Photo: Evgeny Feldman, Novaya Gazeta)
Not dead yet: Russia’s opposition rallies in first major protest since Nemtsov assassination

Russians took to the streets this weekend in the first major call to action by opposition politicians since their leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated seven months ago. The protest rally, themed “Change of Power,” was held in the residential district of Marino, on the outskirts of Moscow, after authorities denied access to a more central Moscow location. The rally was held on September 20, the 4-year anniversary of the so-called “castling” maneuver announced by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in September 2011 that he would be the one running for president, for a third term, instead of sitting president Dmitry Medvedev, a move that triggered mass protests and civil disobedience. Russia hasn’t been the same since.

The “Change of Power” action comes amid more controversy and difficulty internally as well as externally for Russia. Not only has Russia been waging an openly covert war in Ukraine after it annexed Crimea by force, it is at this moment engaged in a buildup of forces in Syria. Russia is more isolated than it’s been in decades, viewed as a rogue and aggressive state threatening its neighbors and challenging settled international laws and protocols. As if a cruel irony, Russia this month has officially taken over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council which entitles it to play a pivotal role in setting the world organization’s security agenda. Putin himself is scheduled to fly to NYC to speak to the UN General Assembly on September 28, no doubt seeking legitimacy for his regime and policies on a world stage.

Putin’s foreign policy has had substantial impact inside Russia as well. International sanctions together with the dramatic drop in oil prices and subsequent slumping ruble have made everything from mortgages to heating and food more expensive for ordinary Russians. Government has been tightening its belt too. Medical professionals have been laid off, hospital construction has been delayed indefinitely. Even Russia’s propaganda industry budget has been reduced.  

Government repression has ramped up as well, as if to keep a lid on the growing stagnation and dissent. Russian mothers burying their soldier sons are asked to stay silent about the circumstances of their deaths in Ukraine. Others have had to fight to receive death benefits. Human rights lawyers aiding these families have been targeted for prosecution. Bookstores are self-censoring, while non-governmental public education organizations, including world renown Memorial and Dynasty, have been designated “foreign agents.” Independent media as well as people are leaving Russia.

In March of this year, opposition leaders had planned an “Anti-Crisis Spring” protest march to address just these critical issues. Censored and ostracized from Russian TV, Putin critics viewed that rally as an opportunity for grassroots education and politics, a way to inform the propaganda-consuming ordinary Russian citizens that their troubles and Russia’s crisis are the direct result of their government’s actions. And Putin, as head of the government, bears the principal responsibility for foreign wars and related domestic crises, and therefore needs to go.

There was controversy concerning the Marino location among opposition leaders when the Spring March was being planned. Some were bitter that authorities wouldn’t permit the rally in a more central Moscow location. They felt classically “injured and insulted” by being pushed out literally to the edges of the capital. Others thought it would hurt the movement because less people would attend. In the end, they decided to go ahead and hold the march even if they couldn’t get approval in a more prominent central location. Better to have a voice somewhere than nowhere.

As it turned out, probably not coincidentally, those voices were silenced by tragedy, and the Spring March never happened. Its leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in his own beloved central Moscow neighborhood on the eve of what promised to be a significant event attended by tens of thousands of people if not more. The Spring protest was cancelled. Instead March 1 became the day of Nemtsov’s mournful funeral march.

This dramatic turn of events seems better suited to an epic novel than the real world. But that’s where we are, in a kind of bipolar world of shock and trauma mixed with disbelief and determination.

Amazingly enough, and to the Kremlin’s dismay, the opposition is not dead yet. They sought to prove it this week with the “Change the Power” rally. It’s hard to say just yet how successful the action was. On the one hand, like getting back on the bike after a fall, just holding a rally which people actually attended is success in itself. On the other hand, there were many not in attendance, suggesting that the opposition is still divided, which makes their shared goal of transferring the reins of Russia to someone other than Putin in a future peaceful democratic election seems ever more distant.

Russia’s opposition has been notoriously divided from its very beginning. But after the assassination of their most prominent leader Boris Nemtsov in February, they showed laudatory and quick determination to unite in order to make some headway against Putin through elections. Still fresh from the trauma of losing their friend and colleague, they had meetings and conferences, which resulted in the formation of the “Democratic Coalition,” to pool resources and candidates to be competitive in elections. Their first test was to be this year’s regional and local elections, followed by next year’s important parliamentary election.

One week ago, Russia held regional and local elections and, unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, the opposition suffered a major defeat. Of course, the ruling party did just about everything imaginable to prevent opposition candidates from participating effectively if at all in elections, including rejecting signatures which disqualified candidates from ballots, raiding party headquarters, preventing independent observers, spreading disinformation, vandalizing cars, even arresting people on trumped up fraud charges. In the end, the opposition managed to get approved on only one election ballot, in only one distant region, Kostroma, and even there, by official accounts they received a paltry 2.5% of the vote. Despite irregularities and likely fraud, this result was still a stinging disappointment. Bloggers and politicians alike are still assessing the damage.

Whatever the results of the analyses, pulling off a large organized gathering in Russia under these conditions by people who are already embattled, exhausted and surely traumatized, still reeling from an assassination and a failed if unfair election, is nothing short of a miracle. There was unity, words from the heart, and of course, poetry.

Though kicked and brutalized and palpably hurting, Russia’s opposition is continuing its work. The mix of emotions on display in Marino was captured by bloggers, photographers and journalists in attendance. Many wonderful photos by Evgeny Feldman of Novaya Gazeta can be found here, and by Martin here.

I found Russia blogger’s Aleksey Nasedkin’s report particularly interesting because he captures so authentically not only the faces but importantly the tone and mood of ordinary Russians who have been struggling to build a democratic society in Russia. Below is Nasedkin’s photo report, with comments translated into English. To his words (italicized) I’ve added explanatory remarks as necessary. The original Live Journal blog in Russian can be found here

So, friends, the opposition’s long-awaited protest rally entitled “Change the Power” happened in the Marino District of Russia today. Long-awaiting because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen similar events in the capital. We all know that protest activity has mostly been happening online, in any event compared to 2011-12. What can I say? The stated demands – access to elections for opposition candidates, end to war, end to censorship, release of political prisoners and corruption fighters – are all of course right. Yet, there’s the feeling that this is all a waste of time. Pointless. Maybe it’s just hopeless. And it seemed almost symbolic that for the first time in several days, it started to rain, which by the way, didn’t bother anyone.
The first person I found at the metal detector was [pro-Kremlin] NOD member Maria Katasonova. She was checked very thoroughly, in case she was there for a provocation.
However, her colleague, Natalya Makeeva of the “Eurasian Youth Union” promised there wouldn’t be any provocations. Seems they came because they were curious to check out their ideological enemies.
Mostly they were the same faces of the relatively small Moscow opposition. [This man is carrying a collection box for prosecuted Bolotnaya Square protesters, some in jail, others still threatened with charges stemming from mass protests in May 6, 2012.]
“Interrogate Turchak” [Turchak is the alleged organizer of a near fatal attack on journalist Oleg Kashin in 2010. He was recently released by authorities despite evidence of his ordering the attack.]
“Who Killed Nemtsov?”    “Change is not crazy”
Banners. [This is a poignant quote from Boris Nemtsov: “I’m fortunate that I can speak the truth, be myself, and not have to grovel to the pathetic thieves in powers.” “FREEDOM IS COSTLY.”]
“Interrogate Kadyrov” [about Nemtsov murder]     “Freedom is priceless”
Reverse.    "Vova [Putin] is Herod"
“Boris Nemtsov was murdered. We demand a normal investigation! Where is the person who ordered it? Where are the organizers? Where is justice?”
"I am for Moscow"
"Hey you, up above! Aren’t your asses tired from sitting there for so long?”
"We don't want to be slaves"
Portrait of Boris Nemtsov: ”Boris’!” [with extra letter on the end, transforming the name "Boris" to imperative “keep fighting”]
Despite the fact that Marino is a fairly remote district, an unexpectedly large crowd turned out for the protest. According to the “White counter,” close to 7000 people gathered. So if [Russia’s TV] “Channel 1” tells you “nobody showed up again,” don’t believe them.
“That same” Martin [blogger, activist "Тот самый martin"]
Mitya Aleshkovsky
It didn’t go without a hitch, however. A few people carrying these flags (what are those?) yelled out obscenities a couple of times, but then fell silent.
Leading the activities on stage, Oksana Mysina.
Ilya Yashin discussed Kostroma and Chukhloma. [sarcasm, like election-schmelection, or blah-blah-blah, i.e. same old crap]
Human Rights activist Zoya Svetova.

Physicist and civic activist Andrey Zayakin [aka Dr Z] shared news from online “Dissernet” community.

Vladimir Ionov [75 year old civic activist, infamously arrested for merely holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign in Moscow; the first to be prosecuted under the new Russian law criminalizing multiple protests.]
Actress Elena Koreneva movingly recited poetry.
Irina Prokhorova addressed the crowd via video. [Prokhorova is a literary critic and cultural historian, and sister of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.]
Leonid Volkov admitted he wanted to be in government. [Volkov is campaign head of the Democratic Coalition.]
Georgy Alburov [from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund]
Yevgenia Albats [investigative journalist, editor-in-chief of The New Times magazine.]
And Oleg Navalny still serving out his sentence, sent an audio from prison. [Oleg was convicted in December 2014 on trumped up charges designed to punish his politically outspoken Putin critic brother Alexey Navalny.]
Dmitry Bykov and Igor Kokhanovsky got an ovation for their performance. [entertaining poetry recital]
And behind the curtain was, of course, Alexey Navalny.



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