Civil unrest in Russia mounts

MOSCOW — Maxim, a 20-year-old university student and political activist, refuses to give his last name and masks his face when he appears in public.

"People fear the pressure of the security forces in Russia," he said. "They don't know who to be scared of, and who is meant to protect them."

"That leads them to be scared to open up, to have a [political] dialogue," he added.

That may be changing. Dozens of demonstrations were held across Russia this weekend, attracting about 2,000 people in the far eastern city of Vladivostok and about the same number in Moscow, where a Communist Party protest had the largest showing.

The numbers are small, but in a country where political demonstrations have become a rare thing under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, first as president and now as prime minister, any showing causes observers to take note.

The Kremlin organized its own counter-demonstrations, getting supporters of the ruling United Russia party to turn out in support of the measures promoted by Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev to battle the country's economic crisis. It was those demonstrations that got blanket coverage on state-run television Saturday and Sunday night.

Before heading to an anti-government demonstration that received scant press attention, Maxim pulled a black hood over his hair and donned dark sunglasses to cover his young eyes.

"They film us," he said in an interview. "It's hard to remain incognito when you speak before a crowd, but I don't want them to film us and find us."

"They" are the riot police and undercover officers from the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor agency, who scan the increasingly frequent anti-Kremlin protests that have begun to grip Russia as the economic situation disintegrates daily.

"Us," in Maxim's case, are youths who form a group known here as Anti-Fa, short for Anti-Fascists, who fight against the rampant violent racism in Russia, and the authoritarian regime that they say allows it to exist.

The group, which numbers about 2,000 in Moscow, uses nonviolent means: posting stickers on the metro and essays on the Internet, attending rallies and promoting bands with an anti-racist message.

When Maxim took the microphone at an anti-Kremlin rally on Sunday commemorating the murders last month of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, many in the crowd took notice.

Unlike most of the other speakers, he was young, he was hip and he was angry.

"These are pieces of shit, not policemen! Do you understand? That's what's happening. These are sorry people, " he told the crowd of 300, shivering in the below-zero temperatures as the protest entered its second hour. "People who finish the police academy are simple schoolboys, and alcoholics." (To hear Maxim speak, watch this video.)  

He roused the gathering to smirks and anger, but away from the crowd, demonstrated a more refined viewpoint.

"It's not that the youth here isn't politicized," he said, explaining why his young face stood out in the crowd of speakers that day. "It's the fault of our cynical politics, which has filtered down to society."

"We have a party in power that is a televised phantom, that doesn't represent the real image of society or our concerns."

At a Communist Party rally the day before, dozens of pensioners echoed that view.

"The people must unify and bring its complaints to the government, so it reexamines its political and economic position," said Galina, 85, waving a red Soviet flag. "The more of us there are, the more and the better the leadership must listen to us. If they don't listen, people can take power into their own hands."

The Russian ruble reached an 11-year-low this week, and unemployment rose 6 percent, with 1.64 million people laid off in the last week of January alone.

Analysts have begun to warn that the biggest shows of discontent could come from cities far from Moscow, which are often organized around one factory as a result of Soviet-era planning. As a result, those cities are feeling the harshest results of the sharp decline in Russian growth and production.

Anatoly Chubais, a political veteran who oversaw post-Soviet privatization and now heads a state-run nanotechnology firm called Rusnano, warned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week that the government faced a 50-50 chance of surviving the crisis.

But Russia's dissidents don't necessarily think that will cure the country's ills.

"I would like to see a social democratic government come to power," said Maxim. "But I know this is difficult to realize."

"There's a real threat that if the government falls, it will be replaced instead with a far-right regime that promises only to promote order," he said.

Nonetheless, the various opposition groups will seek to capitalize on the growing discontent.

"The economic situation is getting worse every day, and so far people haven't come out en masse because of the cold weather and the irrational belief that everything will work out," said Denis Bitunov, the executive director of the United Civil Front, the opposition group led by former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, which joined in Saturday's protests and has called another for Feb. 21. "In one or two months, it'll be clear that's not the case."

 

Other GlobalPost dispatches from Russia:

Is Evgeny Chichvarkin Russia's latest mogul to flee?

A too-familiar Moscow scene.