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(An)other Russia Rally

Things are looking bad for Russia’s floundering “opposition”. I say “opposition” because the Western media has declared the Russia’s liberal forces–Yabloko, SPS, and Other Russia–the true challengers to Putin and United Russia rather than the real opposition, the Communists. Be that as it may. Apparently, pumping up small and insignificant parties is far more agreeable to the Western political establishment than giving credence to Zyuganov.

It’s difficult to measure whatever strength, if any, the “opposition” has in Russia. If today’s rally is any indication, it’s not much. The Other Russia rally ranged between 1000 to 3000 participants depending on who you ask. About an hour into the rally, a band of 200 National Bolsheviks waving black flags with hammer and sickles broke away and began marching. This gave OMON the legal green light to move in and bust the whole thing up. Moscow authorities only sanctioned a rally. Scuffles ensued but eventually armor clad OMONtsy encircled the “dissenters.” And to the tune of billy clubs rapping against their shields, they snagged the most vocal of activists and hustled them into an awaiting van. Limonov, Kasparov, Maria Gaidar, Ilya Yashin and 100 others were arrested. The four faces of “opposition” were on their way to present a complaint to the Electoral Commission office. According to the Moscow Times, they barely made it to McDonald’s.

All were released shortly thereafter (Gaidar as a Duma rep for SPS has immunity) except for Kasparov who was charged with resisting arrest and organizing an illegal march. He is expected to sit in the slammer until Thursday. Given the paltry turn out, Other Russia should be happy that OMON was there to make their march relevant. Without arrests there wouldn’t have been anything noteworthy.

Things looked no brighter in St. Petersburg. There about 500 Other Russia supporters gathered in defiance of city authorities. OMON didn’t hesitate to round up all the rally’s organizers including newly named SPS presidential candidate Boris Nemtsov and local party head Nikita Belykh. Both were released. Again, its a good thing OMON showed up because then the Financial Times couldn’t call their action a “crackdown,” the Moscow Times couldn’t declare the march “quashed,” and RFE/RL would have to find another verb besides “crush” for their headline.

The Bush Administration issued a statement condemning Moscow’s “aggressive tactics.” That should provide Channel One, which called Other Russia a bunch of “aggressive extremists” and provocateurs looking to brainwash pensioners in its coverage of the march, with more xenophobic fodder. Its seems that the powers that be love the word “aggressive.”

The march culminates several weeks of police harassment of Other Russia and other oppositionists. On Friday, police raided their Moscow headquarters with a mandate to search for “weapons, drugs, and illegal literature.” The first two were nowhere to be found (probably to the cops’ disappointment), but the police were nonetheless able to walk away with some “illegal literature”: 300 stickers that read “Vote for the Other Russia List.” Wow, scary.

If Other Russia is in a bind, Yabloko is faring no better. Forget the fact that police blocked their offices the morning of the St. Petersburg march. And forget that Yabloko Ivan Bolshakov was detained a few days before. The real signal to the “dissenters” is the murder of Farid Babaev, Yabloko’s chief in Dagestan. Babaev was shot four times, including one “control shot” in the head, in his apartment vestibule on Wednesday. The assassins’ whereabouts, of course, are unknown and probably will remain so.

Will the suppression of the Russian “opposition” matter to voters? It will certainly harden the belief among the already converted that Putin is no democrat. But for most Russians Sunday’s events are par for the course. According to a poll conducted by RFE/RL the government’s pressure is exactly what they expect. Putin and his people will ensure their victory either through graft, influence, or plain old violence. The fix is already in and Putin is holding all the cards. Or as poli-sci prof Vladimir Gelman told RFE/RL,

“You can compare the situation to a football match in which the result is known in advance, the referee completely favors one team that is the preordained victor, and the spectators are not even interested in watching or in supporting one team or another.”

Putin the spread buster must really irk some bookies.

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