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May protests in Moscow: The Whats and Whys

10.05.12 17:36    By Ekaterina Vinokurova, edited by Robert Gally and Semyon Kvasha


Protesters hide from the rain at their camp.   Photo: Reuters


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Mass protests continued through May holidays in Moscow. They were fraught with police clashes, but also brought new tactics to the movement, ones that don't need leaders and slogans.

On May 9, Victory Day, the opposition held a spontaneous gathering near the monument to Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev  on Chistoprudny Boulevard. This movement lasted for many, many hours over the May holidays.

Between 800 and 1,500 people gathered at the monument in the evening, coordinating everything through Twitter and Facebook. Many people came to the rally because of news of the arrest of opposition leaders Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, each received 15 days for taking part in a similar peaceful assembly.

After gathering, protesters started to walk without slogans or symbols (although the protest was officially against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin). They have been walking for three days and nights and there have been constant clashes with the police. The clashes might better be called a game of cat and mouse with protesters often having to "run away from riot police." When riot police appeared the opposition would attempt to change locations, but there were not always successful. On the night of May 8, because of constant mass detentions, security agencies were complaining about a lack of paddy wagons and space in police stations. The average number of participants "walking" in the past three days, not counting the last campaign, is about 300-500 people. In the evening of May 9, it became clear that the activists won through perseverance: the police stopped breaking up gatherings. However, on the evening of May 10 at the same location another, bigger gathering has been planned.

This new style of protest was created after the rally at Bolotnaya square on May 6, when, contrary to even the organizers' expectation, several tens of thousands protesters came to march. The consequences of this, after the peaceful demonstration failed and the rally was scattered by riot police, were only starting to appear. The investigation committee is working on a criminal case – a call to mass disturbances – but there are no suspects.

What happened at Bolotnaya square

One of the rally organizers, Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov admits the clashes with the riot police were provoked by masked people among the protesters, but the opposition blames the mayor's office and the police for breaking the agreement and creating conditions for provocations. During the march from Oktyabrskaya metro station there was an interruption: part of the participants overtook the marching column leaders including Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov, deputies Dmitry and Genady Gudkovs and Ilya Ponomarev, and came to metal detectors at Bolotnaya square first. 

And it was clear they didn't belong there: before, the authorities allowed the protesters gather not only on asphalt but in the small park, this time the grass was guarded by riot police and there were not enough metal detectors to let all the protesters through. Deputies went to the police to negotiate a recall of the guards from the parks and Navalny, Yashin, and Udaltsov declared peaceful sit-in until the authorities dismantled the bottleneck.

Dmitry Gudkov told Gazeta.ru the negotiations were almost successful when suddenly the group of young men in black masks started to attack the cordon. Riot police reacted immediately, and started to push protesters and detain people. 

"The talks were sabotaged. Then the stones and empty bottles flew at riot policemen, and the mess started," he said.

As a result, 29 policemen were wounded, as were many peaceful protesters. Masked young men were not detained, as far as Gazeta.ru knows.
After the Bolotnaya events there were two questions – were the clashes with riot police and the sit-in planned by the organizers, and who were the masked men, government provocateurs or radical opposition activists?

Ksenia Sobchak, opposition socialite, had a widely discussed post on her website.mShe explained in her blog that she didn't go to the rally because she knew the protest wouldn't be peaceful. Later she answered in her twitter that she didn't know, she only supposed. A Gazeta.ru source that was present at organizing committee meetings said different scenarios were discussed.

"Nobody knew how many people would come. There were calls to break the cordons if only few hundred and not many thousands would come, and to march to the Kremlin. The sit-in was also discussed, and the tent camp. But nobody was going to sit in front of metal detectors since no one thought the parks at Bolotnaya would be closed. Also, no one planned the fight with riot police," the source said.

He thinks the decision to sit-in was made by Navalny and Udaltsov spontaneously. "No one expected the stones to fly at the police," he added. The Co-chairman of the unregistered PARNAS party, Boris Nemtsov, thinks it was the closure of the parks that brought on the dire consequences. "I'm sure there were provocateurs in the crowd, their goal was to provoke the clashes," he told Gazeta.ru.

One of the witnesses we talked to supports this theory saying that not only stones but also bottles flew at the police, although the clashes started after people walked through cordons and metal detectors where all the liquids were confiscated, including drinking water.

There's another version: it was right- and left-wing radicals who attacked the police, they hate law enforcement and are always ready to fight.

The new form of protest

In the evening on May 6 the participants of Bolotnaya rally started to discuss what to do next through Facebook and Twitter. The next morning the disorganized protesters took part in several rallies in Moscow. Some went to Manezhnaya square to stand there in silence with white ribbons – the symbols of the protests, while others preferred boulevards close to Noby Arbat, along the new president's inauguration motorcade route.

Riot police scattered the protesters at Manezhnaya quickly, but the walks with white ribbons continued. After each new series of arrests, participants connected through Twitter to those still free and continued their strolls in other streets. Late on May 7, the day of Putin's inauguration, protesters came to the monument of Plavna heroes and decided to spend the night there. Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, who had been released from the police station, joined them. The next morning the protesters camp was raided by the police, but as earlier, this didn't end the protest. The activists moved to Chistiye Prudy first, then to Oushkinskaya, later to Nikitskiye Vorota, at night to the square close to Barrikadnaya metro station, where early in the morning on May 9 Navalny and Udaltsov were detained for the 4th time.

May 9 Bolotnaya leaders were tried and sentenced to 15 days in jail (earlier they were fined 1,000 each). This news only strengthened the protest.

"Everyone was so angry after Bolotnaya square, people didn't care for detainments and paddy wagons anymore," Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev explained the increase in quantity of protesters.

TV host and opposition socialite Ksenia Sobchak, who took part in this protest, told Gazeta.ru that the distinctive feature of the 'strolls' is that they are leaderless. They will continue until the authorities accept people's right to walk freely in their city. "We have passed the point of no return. Either the government caves in or we are in for a protest radicalization and a civil war. Our demands were sounded during the winter protest rallies. They are for an honest election, court independence and freedom of the media," Sobchak told Gazeta.ru.

She thinks we need to create a unified front, to define a strategy on regional and local elections.

Although the March of Millions and the protests that followed were organized without many of the leaders from previous protests: the writers Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov, journalists Leonid Parfenov and Olga Romanova, and politician Vladimir Ryzhkov – part of them promise to come back. Many of them went away on May holidays. But writer Dmitry Bykov is organizing the "Control stroll" this weekend, inviting other writers including Akunin, Mikhaiil Veller, and Viktor Shenderovich to join him in the boulevards. 

The reaction

The riot police answers the clashes on May 6. "This is their reaction: we can't influence the law enforcement agencies," Gazeta.ru's source in the presidential administration said, explaining the reasons why the peaceful strolls were dispersed.

The other source told Gazeta.ru that the authorities can't stop to detain people: if it shows the opposition any weakness, the demands will pile up.

"Today if we allow them to occupy Chistoprudny Boulevard, tomorrow we'll have tents under the Kremlin walls. That's not how things are done," the source said. Although he said this on Wednesday evening, before the riot police abstained from raiding the square in front of Abai Kananbayev monument.

The new form of protest is very unpleasant for the government: it forces the authorities to break the law and they don't understand how to react to such a protest, said the head of Foundation for effective politics, Gleb Pavlovsky.

"The opposition played the game of "You can't arrest everybody", and the government looked stupid. This is an unstable situation, soon it stops being funny: there will be an escalation of the conflict. Although the arrests of the peaceful strollers don't look funny already," Pavlovsky told Gazeta.ru.

"After the December rallies,  moderate protesters had the feeling they scored some goals: they were promised gubernatorial elections, public television, new political party registrations, etc.," Vice-President for the Center of political technologies Alexei Makarkin told Gazeta.ru. "In April it was clear that something was wrong with the reform: instead of direct gubernatorial elections there is a system with many filters and limitations, instead of public television, a new channel with directors appointed by the government, many governors were reappointed instead of elected. And finally, the chairman of the Central Election Commission Vladimir Churov, accused by the opposition of massive election fraud,  was awarded with the Order of Alexandr Nevsky, and that didn't go unnoticed," Makarkin said.

The moderates felt they were cheated, Makarkin thinks. "Each single event from this list wouldn't increase in quantity of the protesters that much, but all the factors combined formed a new wave of protests," Makarkin told Gazeta.ru. Also, this is the first time that people from Russian regions came to Moscow to protest in such numbers. "This also gave an increase in numbers of Bolotnaya square events participants."

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