Monday, October 25, 2010

Moscow Allows Protest (For Once)

An odd thing happened in Moscow over the weekend, a group of about 500 people gathered in a political protest. What makes this protest unusual is that it was the first rally against the Putin government in several years to receive an official permit from authorities in Moscow. Officials in Moscow regularly denied permits to such rallies in the past, and regularly sent in the riot police to break-up even the smallest gatherings. But Saturday's rally – organized by the group “Five Demands” (one of which is for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) and which featured former chess champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov – went off without incident.

That could be part of a strategy on the part of the Russian government to blunt international criticism over a lack of political freedom in Russia, namely to blame previous heavy-handed tactics on that mean old Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's now former mayor. Luzhkov was deposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a brief power-struggle. Luzhkov, who served as mayor of Moscow for nearly two decades and who oversaw the city's transformation from drab Soviet capital to glitzy European metropolis, was widely regarded as Russia's third most-powerful politician behind only Medvedev and Putin. One critique of Luzhkov was that he, on occasion, used Moscow's police force as his own private militia, quickly breaking up public gatherings that he did not approve of. It seems like the Kremlin is eager to push this narrative when it comes to political gatherings in the capital.

But the news for the political opposition isn't all good. UPI is reporting that last week the Russian Duma amended a law to bar people merely charged with disorderly conduct from being allowed to organize political events. Considering that mass arrests, often with few or no prosecutions, has been a tactic used to breakup unwanted political rallies in Moscow for years now, this law would in theory cover most of the political opposition's organizers, further restricting freedom of speech in Russia according to Lev Ponomarev, leader of the group For Human Right.
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