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Dissidents push for a different Russia

Two ex-Kremlin advisers are among those hosting an alternative conference ahead of this weekend's G-8 summit.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2006


In the troubled Caspian region of Dagestan, bringing a court case against the police can get a man arrested, says local lawyer Osman Bolayev.

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After filing an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a family whose young daughter had been killed during a police raid, Mr. Bolayev says he was arrested, beaten by Russian security agents, and then falsely charged with weapons' possession.

"These charges against me are ridiculous," he says. "I have always worked within the law, and I believe in the process. But we are being slowly suffocated and cut off from dialogue with the rest of the world."

So Bolayev has decided to do something about it. He – together with several hundred Russian opposition activists – has come to Moscow to contest the glowing image of Russia that Vladimir Putin will serve up to leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized democracies, at a St. Petersburg summit slated for July 15-17.

The "Different Russia" conference, which opens Tuesday, has been derided by Kremlin supporters as a motley gathering of fringe personalities from the communist left to the nationalist right, who can't adjust to Mr. Putin's economically booming, politically unified, and socially stable Russia.

But the meeting's conveners, who include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, chess grand master Garry Kasparov, and two ex-Kremlin advisers, say their goal is to expose Putin's Russia as a false facade, behind which officialdom is "waging war" on independent civil society.

"The official model imposed by the authorities is a monopoly over the economy, business, politics, ideology, and civil society," says organizer Andrei Illaryonov, who was forced to resign as the Kremlin's chief economic adviser last December for speaking out of turn. "We stand for alternatives, the right of people to openly debate these alternatives and freely choose for themselves."

The debate, both within the country and internationally, over Russia's direction may well erupt at the G-8 summit.

Experts say Russian society has indeed polarized between a majority that accepts reduced freedoms in exchange for order and prosperity, and a minority that doesn't. A June poll conducted by the state-run Public Opinion Research Center found 49 percent of Russians "happy" with the country's political situation, against 18 percent who said they were unhappy.

Under Putin, Russia has seen seven years of robust economic growth, partly driven by the ever-rising price of the country's main export, petroleum.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin, often acting through state-run firms, has seized control of the country's TV networks and greatly reduced the scope of media debate. Electoral changes have rolled back democracy and stacked the deck in favor of the pro-Kremlin colossus, United Russia. Many independent groups say they fear recent legislation regulating NGOs, and a new law that defines some criticisms of authorities as "extremism," will be used to quash any activities that don'ttoe the Kremlin line.

"This is not just a limitation of democracy, it's a complete split from the democratic system," says Yury Dzhibladze, head of the independent Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow.