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.

Misha Japaridze/AP
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.

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.

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.

"Resistance can take a lot of forms," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a sociologist and head of the Mercator group, a Moscow consultancy. "The street protests are not going to end, and they can take place anywhere. A considerable amount of the Moscow population sympathizes with them, and this suggests that compromises would be the best approach. Repression might work for a while, but public opposition to them is building. It's one thing when you see it on TV, and another when it involves your friends, neighbors and relatives.

"There will be more resistance coming via the Internet. We may see businesses, who are suffering from the (Putin-era) climate, find ways to show opposition. In the worst case, the best and brightest might leave the country, with their money. All these types of pressure will eventually lead to changes in Russia," he says.

The greatest strength, and perhaps the biggest weakness, of Russia's protest movement has been its lack of structure, political program, and official leaders. Most of the people who've come out to Moscow's huge anti-Putin rallies in recent months have been politically unaffiliated and largely self-organized through social media like Twitter, Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte.

Though some leaders have emerged and gained public prominence amid Russia's unprecedented season of street activism, none can claim to be in control of the movement or even to speak for it.

Like their Western counterparts, the activists who started the camp at Chistye Prudi explicitly shun any political structure, appear to embrace a wide variety of viewpoints, and seem to agree only on the demand that Vladimir Putin should resign.

After the camp was dispersed today, the word immediately went out on Twitter that a new spot had been chosen in a park near Barrikadnaya metro, just off Moscow's bustling Garden Ring thoroughfare.

"This is a civic movement, one that as yet has no political agenda, structure, leaders or even a spokesperson," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"Its emergence is evidence of deep societal shifts. Part of Russian society has abandoned its traditional quiescence and cynicism, and is no longer willing to turn their backs and ignore what the authorities do. They want to make a difference, to have a say. Yet they're not ready to develop a political agenda, to mobilize politically and seek to negotiate with power. At least not yet." 

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