Nervous Russia stomps dissent
Economic angst is prompting more rallies Sunday. How will the Kremlin react?
The collapse of oil prices and the Russian ruble have ignited relatively small protests against the government here. But reaction from the Kremlin has been fast and furious.Skip to next paragraph
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Nationwide rallies planned for Sunday are expected to draw even larger crowds and will be the next major test of a Russian leadership increasingly anxious over dissent.
Leaders of the still-influential Communist Party, which is staging the upcoming rallies, say the Kremlin's fears were on display during protests last weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg, when thousands of riot troopers confronted a few hundred demonstrators from the Other Russia, a broad anti-Kremlin coalition, and arrested 150 of them.
"On its face it seems ridiculous to see thousands of cops beating up a handful of peaceful demonstrators; logic dictates that they ought to ignore us," says Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned leftist National Bolshevik Party. "But the authorities fear opposition and ... [as the economic crisis grows] they have good reason for that. They read the FSB [security police] reports and they know that we are very well organized and ready to lead in the case of mass social unrest."
Mr. Limonov was among those detained and allegedly manhandled by police last Sunday.
Communist Party leaders have called for a nationwide day of "anticapitalist" rallies Sunday against growing unemployment and price rises. Although it's never easy to predict how many protesters will show up, organizers feel safe in their forecasts that hordes of police will be on hand.
"Our authorities want no protests to be seen on the streets in order to maintain the illusion that they still have the support of the majority of the population," says Oleg Kulikov, a leading Communist State Duma deputy.
Russia's state-run TV networks highlight official reassurances that Russia will weather the global economic storm while offering little hard reporting about rumored widespread layoffs and wage cuts. But public perceptions that something is amiss are rising. A November survey by the independent Russian Public Opinion Foundation found that 42 percent of respondents thought the economy is in crisis, and 39 percent said they felt "disaffected" about the government's handling of it.
Internet statistics issued by Google Russia this week show that between September and November Russian users queried keywords such as "crisis," "bankruptcy," and "firing" five times more often than in the same period last year. There has been no official effort to curb Russia's fast-growing online community, but last week leading Duma deputies of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party met with several top website operators and "expressed concern that rumors about the consequences of the crisis and layoffs are being over-dramatized on the Net," according to the Moscow daily Kommersant.