Nervous Russia stomps dissent

Economic angst is prompting more rallies Sunday. How will the Kremlin react?

Mikhail metzel/ap
Off to Jail: Riot police detained a demonstrator during an anti-Kremlin protest Sunday in Moscow.
mikhail metzel/ap
Much ado: Russian police cordoned off the anti-Kremlin protest in Moscow Sunday, attempting to thwart the rally.

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.

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.

Printed media have also come under tougher scrutiny. After Yevgeny Gontmakher, a former deputy social services minister, explored the potential for unrest this coming winter in an article in the business newspaper Vedemosti, a warning came from the government agency that oversees the press. The article, according to the government, "could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities" under Russia's tough media laws. Such infractions could get a newspaper shut down.

Mr. Gontmakher, director of the independent Center for Social Policy, is unrepentant. "The situation is growing very serious, and I'm afraid social conflicts will break out in the coming year if something isn't done to establish dialogue between the population and authorities," he says. The danger is particularly severe in single-industry towns, of which Russia has about 700, he says. "People are trapped in small cities, where economic failure could bring social turmoil and political paralysis. I fear our authorities will not recognize this threat until it's too late."

Though Russia endured a decade of severe depression during the 1990s with only a few big social protests, some experts say the country is more volatile now. In the confusion following the Soviet Union's breakup, many workers in bankrupt factories went without salaries but retained their official jobs and often were paid in products – which they bartered for necessities – and were allowed to use company housing. A study in the mid-1990s found that half of all food consumed was home-grown.

"Society has changed radically since the 1990s," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "Today, thanks to a decade of economic growth, Russia is a wage labor society. When you get unemployed today, there is nothing to fall back on."

In the 1990s, opposition parties dominated the Duma, and a more open, robust media existed. Experts warn that the concentration of power in the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, and the near monopoly held by the United Russia Party, which Mr. Putin leads, leaves few outlets for dissent and no alternative avenues for spreading responsibility in the event of economic failure.

"The authorities argue that social stability has been the great achievement of the Putin era, and they are very much afraid of losing this image," says Vladimir Gimpelson, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The political system has become too rigid, and if unrest begins, there is a danger it can be completely broken."

Limonov, a best-selling novelist turned street agitator, says the Kremlin today is like many past Russian governments, which relied on security forces and propaganda to maintain order but had little genuine contact with their own populations. "Russian civil society is grown up, it has become modern, while our state remains medieval," he says. "No wonder they're afraid of us."

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