Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report

Oksana Chelysheva
24 April 2007

The crushing of a peaceful protest march in Russia’s third-largest city is a disturbing signal of the Kremlin’s new authoritarianism, says Oksana Chelysheva.

Recent moves to change the law to allow a foreign leader with a dubious human-rights record to serve another unprecedented term in office are stirring concern in foreign ministries around the world.

This is a leader known to be contemptuous of NGOs and human rights groups, prone to crack down on peaceful demonstrators, and to play the anti-west card when politically opportune. At home he enjoys a near cult of personality where domestic media dutifully report his speeches, with only a tiny number of journalists failing to toe the party line. Meanwhile, foreign observers are frequently harassed or prevented from entering the country at all.

Robert Mugabe? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? No, Vladimir Putin, Russia's vauntingly powerful president. A leader who commands not just fear and respect at home, but also revels in vast reserves of respect overseas. Naturally, President Putin's Olympian position has a lot to do with the equally vast reserves of oil and gas that lie under Russian soil and underpin the country's current economic success.

Oksana Chelysheva is a Russian journalist who works for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. Along with her colleague Stanislav Dmitrievsky, she received the Amnesty International UK media award for "human-rights journalism under threat" in 2006

Also by Oksana Chelysheva:

"Civil society under siege: the case of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society" (Chechnya Weekly, [Jamestown Foundation], 7/21, 25 May 2006)

"The decline of freedom in Russia"
(5 February 2007)

Rather than subserviently settle for a Russia that crushes dissent at home but keeps the energy taps open abroad, the west needs to wake up to the new reality of what it means to have an autocratic giant as a neighbour.

There have been many warnings. The list of Kremlin critics who have died, been imprisoned or forced into exile continues to grow. Award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya (murdered in October 2006); former spy and arch-Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned in November); investigative journalist Ivan Safronov (died after a mysterious fall from a fifth-floor window in March 2007); former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky (still in prison); Chechen envoy and Soviet-era culture minister Akhmed Zakayev (granted asylum in Britain); former FSB officer and investigative lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin (imprisoned on trumped-up charges).

It's a disturbing roll-call, but it's only the tip of an iceberg that's ripping through Russia's fragile civil society.

Power vs dissent

The crackdown on demonstrators in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's third-biggest city, shows how far the autocratic roll-back has now extended under President Putin. I and other organisers had planned a demonstration march through the city on 24 March 2007. This was to be a peaceful gathering of local human rights groups, environmentalists, and smaller political groups - including those unhappy with local projects like a planned demolition in the historic centre of Nizhny Novgorod. The day was dubbed a "march of dissent", and our slogan was "give Nizhny Novgorod back to the people!"

How did mighty Russia, a country of 140 million, with a huge nuclear arsenal and pretensions to superpower status react? First the authorities tried to ban the day outright. It was "illegal" (it wasn't). It was going to trespass onto church-owned holy land (it wasn't). It would be "violent" (it wouldn't). Then the serious harassment and round-ups began.

Also in openDemocracy on Russian journalism, human rights, and civil society:

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia"
(5 April 2007)

For two weeks in the lead-up to the day, organisers started getting mysterious and not so mysterious home "visits" from often unidentified people. The Kommersant newspaper, which had been covering plans for the march, received phone-calls from city authorities warning it to drop its coverage. An editor and a journalist were summoned to the prosecutor's office to explain themselves and to reveal what they knew of the march's organisers. The police began detaining leaflet distributors, placing some of them in custody for several days. There were threats, including that some would be put into cells with common criminals to be "mutilated". Students and staff at several Nizhny Novgorod universities and colleges were "visited" and warned that the march would be violent and that if they knew what was good for them they wouldn't join it. Staff members say they were threatened with the sack if they didn't comply. Even people in the marketplace and in city-centre shops were accosted by unidentified people who offered the helpful advice that the demonstration was to be avoided, as "criminals and thieves from various regions of Russia" would be there.

Some of the harassment was the usual quasi-Soviet mix of the comic and the sinister. One of the organisers had his apartment door glued shut from the outside and had to clamber through a window to get out. Others were picked up in the street by plainclothes personnel, forced into cars and driven out of the city for their "own protection".

The intimidation worked. Only about 200 dared or managed to attend on the day, far lower than the expected 1,000. These 200 - facing a blockaded city, with 3,000 military personnel around the main square, and another 17,000 cordoning off the outer rings of the city - never had a chance during the march itself. Security officers started to detain people almost immediately. In scenes more reminiscent of Tiananmen Square than Gorky Square, people were simply snatched out of the crowd, many of them - including elderly protestors - knocked to the ground, then literally carried to waiting police buses.

Numerous individuals were beaten up, including the chair of the Nizhny Novgorod committee against torture, Igor Kalyapin, Dutch journalist Remko Reiding and other reporters working for international news outlets. Random beatings with police batons took place in the street, some of them in front of the McDonald's in the main square.

The modest march of dissent was, in other words, ruthlessly crushed in an Iranian or Zimbabwean fashion. Shamefully, the international reaction was muted. Amnesty International UK passed an emergency resolution at its annual general meeting condemning the crackdown, and there was criticism from the United States state department, but where was the international uproar?

The world may come to rue its cowed indifference to Russia's new authoritarianism. With killings in London, journalists attacked in Russian cities, and multinationals scared of investing in a country prone to crack down on companies run by powerful businessmen, Russia's autocratic iceberg is, you might say, a threat to international shipping as well as domestic vessels. President Putin might want to be Russia's skipper for another presidential voyage, but by that time the ship itself may be little more than a floating prison.

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