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.

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

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.

The often vitriolic debate may fail to capture the full complexities of Putin-era Russia, say some experts. The shackles on democracy, press freedom, and grass-roots organizing are real, but they remain mild by Soviet standards and actively target only the most outspoken critics. On the other hand, the state no longer attempts to control people's private lives – as the Communist regime did – and modest prosperity has enabled millions of Russians to travel abroad, build their own homes, and launch Western-style careers in recent years.

"When someone says we're going back to the USSR, I say you must have forgotten what the Soviet Union was like," says Vladimir Posner, a longtime commentator. "I'm not very happy with the way things are going, but at least [those at the Different Russia meeting] have the possibility to behave and talk that way. If this were the Soviet Union, they'd all be in jail right now."

Still, Moscow's moves have increasingly drawn the attention of the US since the Washington-based Freedom House, which rates governments around the world, downgraded Russia from "partly free" to "not free" two years ago.

"We have concerns, such as the overcentralization of power and the plight of civil society in Russia," said a Western diplomat. "I wouldn't be surprised if that figured in the official [G-8] agenda."

But the foreign ministry has criticized Freedom House's reports. "Why the need for this continuous exercise in tarnishing Russia's reputation?" asked the ministry in a statement. "It could be that someone ... wants to maintain the pressure being put on us and is using the theme of human rights through an old habit, as it was the case in the USSR period ..."

Putin reached out to some civil society groups last week in a Kremlin-backed "Civil G-8" forum, though critics called it a mere public relations exercise. The president pledged to bring the concerns of environmentalists and AIDS activists to the G-8. Later, in a recent online forum, Putin said that the fact he was answering a critical question suggested that "democracy is in good hands and developing in the right direction."

Though authorities have avoided sweeping measures to block the "Different Russia" gathering, Russian G-8 envoy Igor Shuvalov last week warned Western governments to ignore it.

"If high officials take part, we will view this as an unfriendly gesture," he said. Several foreign observers, including two from the State Department, are expected to attend.

Some say this week's Moscow gathering signals the return to Russia's political landscape of "dissidents" – those tiny bands of Soviet-era activists whose trenchant criticism was sharply at odds with the USSR's self-satisfied image. Conference organizers allege that police have tried to intimidate dozens of delegates, including threats of arrest, in a bid to prevent them from taking part.

"It's an inspiring thing that so many of them have the courage, like the Soviet-era dissidents, to go ahead despite the bullying," says Lilia Shevtsova, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

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