Sunday, March 04, 2007

The state of Russian democracy

By Michael J.W. Stickings

In Putin's Russia -- which very much resembles the Russia of the past, no matter the regime -- there isn't much room for dissent and opposition:

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Police violently broke up an unauthorized opposition rally in Russia's second-largest city Saturday, clubbing dozens of activists before dragging them into waiting buses.

Several thousand members of liberal and leftist groups chanted “Shame!” as they marched down St. Petersburg's main avenue to protest what they said was Russia's rollback from democracy. The demonstration, called the March of Those Who Disagree, was a rare gathering of the country's beleaguered and often fractious opposition.

City authorities had banned the march, only granting permission for a rally far from the city centre, but the activists defied the ban and marched down Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street, blocking traffic.

Riot police beat dozens of protesters with truncheons, but thousands broke through police cordons. They marched toward the city centre and rallied for about 40 minutes until police moved in again, detaining people and dragging them into buses.

The protest was organized by, among others, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now one of Putin's more prominent critics.

The opposition is indeed "fractious". And it includes some rather unsavoury elements -- one of those detained is the leader of the far-right National Bolshevik Party. Nonetheless, fringe elements notwithstanding, democracy requires opposition, and this incident in St. Petersburg gives a good indication of what Putin thinks of those who oppose him and of democracy generally.

Thankfully, a mainstream liberal movement has emerged to oppose Putin's encroaching authoritarianism, and Kasparov -- who has formed both Committee 2008 and United Civil Front -- is a genuine ally of liberal democracy in Russia.

One just wonders if Russia is ready for it. Or if its current leaders will ever allow it.

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