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Russia's protest movement shows staying power, despite today's dispersal

Moscow police broke up a weeklong protest encampment today, but activists just moved it elsewhere, showing authorities they might be in for a hard fight against Russia's protest movement.

By Correspondent / May 16, 2012

Russian youth opposition protesters, evicted by police from a protest camp at Chistiye Prudy, relax at a new site chosen for their camp in downtown Moscow, Wednesday, May 16.

Misha Japaridze/AP

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Moscow

Moscow police moved in today to shut down the little "democracy preserve" set up 10 days ago in a downtown park near Chistye Prudi metro, but Tweeting and Facebooking opposition activists quickly transferred their encampment to another part of the city, signaling that they will carry on.

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About 20 people were arrested and an army of cleaners was sent in to erase all signs of the little camp, which boasted only a few hundred permanent occupants but swelled to thousands during typical evenings. The camp (photos here) featured free civics lectures, loosely structured debates, musical performances, and outdoor theater. Activists arranged food supplies and sanitation and policed themselves, strictly enforcing after-dark silence to avoid disturbing nearby apartment dwellers and banning all alcoholic drinks.

Nevertheless, incoming police brandished a court order, based on a lawsuit filed by local residents who charged Moscow authorities with "failing to maintain public decorum" by allowing the camp to exist. The suit was received, investigated, adjudicated, and enforced within the space of a single day – an astonishing speed for Russia's normally sluggish legal system.

"What we see is that there is no place for protesters to be safe in Russia," says Ilya Yashin, a leader of the opposition Solidarity movement, and a founder of the camp. "The authorities consider any speck of territory not under their direct control to be a challenge, which brings forth a desire to disperse, crush, repress. Still, we consider the week or so of our camp at Chistye Prudi to be a big victory, because it forced authorities to behave decently, observe rules, even turn to the court for a decision to remove it. That's a bit of progress."

Russia's anti-Putin activists appear to have consciously borrowed the US and European Occupy Wall Street movement's tactic of setting up semi-permanent camps to act as a focal point for public agitation and information outreach. They may now find themselves running up against similar challenges. In most Western cases, police eventually found pretexts to break up encampments, forcing activist to rethink tactics and move into new forms of protest. That is likely to happen in Russia at an accelerated pace.

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