Russia: Day of protest across Russia

On Saturday 12 February, nearly 300 demonstrations took place in 77 regions across the whole of Russia, at the same time.

Clare Doyle recently visited St Petersburg, in Russia, and discussed with opposition activists to Putin’s policies. Clare reports on the recent wave of protests.

Day of protest across Russia

Most of them were called by political alliances of various parties, especially, but not only, on the left. Red flags were much in evidence. They were aimed at keeping up the pressure on the Putin government following the wave of mass protests by pensioners and others against the ‘monetisation’ (reduction) of their benefits.

There were also one or two other demonstrations organised simultaneously by government forces, bringing well-dressed men and women onto the streets to express their confidence in Putin and his policies (with transport, food and TV coverage guaranteed).

Just a few days before these unprecedented nationally coordinated demonstrations, the government had easily survived a parliamentary motion of no confidence. This came as no surprise, given the huge government majority, but many MPs from the ruling party were missing from the vote, along with much of the opposition. (The maverick right-wing politician, Jirinovski, now deputy leader of the Duma, was among those who abstained. This was not because of sympathy with the pensions protesters – far from it. He has said publicly that they should be cleared off the streets, shot down if necessary and their blood smeared over the roads.)

The popularity of the Putin government has plummeted, particularly over the treatment of the pensioners, in the context of an expanding economy and massive oil revenues.

Friends of mine on pensions or invalidity benefits told me they had to laugh or they would cry. At a meeting with a local bureaucrat they tried to explain how they couldn’t manage on their 260 roubles ($8) payment and how there would be at least two categories of people allowed totally free transport – those who were totally physically paralysed and those with no legs!

The government was forced to retreat to some extent, making concessions and apologising for the way the cuts were implemented. Throwing blame onto the local authorities for the way the new ‘law’ was implemented has meant some of them at least temporarily re-introducing free transport. But it also opens the way for socialists and others to demand that local councils refuse to implement the cuts and demand more money from central government, a la mass campaign of Liverpool Council in Britain in the 1980s.

St Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, last Saturday, up to 5,000 gathered at the Finland Station for an hour and a half’s protest demonstration. This follows a whole series of spontaneous and semi-spontaneous street demonstrations, in which up to 15,000 participated, blocking at least two main highways and filling the famous crossroads on the Nevsky Prospect, where workers and their families were mown down in the July Days of 1917.

The first of the demonstrations in St Petersburg, after the Kimkhi ones, near Moscow, were on 9 January – exactly 100 years after Bloody Sunday, 1905, when the thousands of peaceful petitioners were killed and injured by the Tsar’s troops.

A committee was organised, which now calls itself the ‘Petersburg Citizens’ Resistance’ and embraces many political parties and groups.

One of its spokespeople is Evgeny Kozlov, of the Russian Communist Party, and president of a committee set up last year called ‘United Action Committee’. He is involved in serious negotiations with the city leaders on a programme of 13 demands and explained how the movement was developing. He saw little prospect of the issue being resolved quickly. "The best outcome", he told me, "Will be the bringing together of the protests of the young people – the students – and those of the pensioners and others who are losing heavily from the government’s reforms, including the changes to housing due to come into force this Spring. This is just a beginning."

Mass dis-information

On the 8 February a delegation, including Evgeny Kozlov, went to the St Petersburg ‘Ministry’ of mass information to complain about the total lack of coverage of the demands of the protest movement. At the time when the demonstrations were swelling from 500 on 14th February to 10,000 on 15th January, the local TV ‘News’ carried scurrilous programmes about big money pouring in from American capitalists a la ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine. The delegation was told that if there had been any incorrect reports, the journalists could be taken to court. It was also told that it was technically very difficult for the TV companies to rearrange their schedules to give any live coverage to the protesters’ representatives and it would be impossible before September! The argument also went that, since the local TV was 70% owned by the local authority, this guaranteed that the interests of the citizens were represented.

The following day, during a picket protest organised by the generally pro-market Yabloko party, its leaders were arrested. On a number of occasions during the recent protests, the armed police were aggressive. One pensioner was run over and killed by a vehicle because of their bungling and, as elsewhere, young participants in these protests were arrested as ‘provocateurs’ and held for questioning.

The comrades of ‘Left Vanguard’ (CWI Russia) sold all the papers they had left at the demonstration on Saturday and gave out leaflets calling for determined and co-ordinated action against all cuts and attacks by the Putin government. As Yevgeny confirmed, the Putin government, in taking into its hands a very high level of executive power, is putting itself into a very vulnerable position when it comes to further mass protests and political opposition to its anti-working class policies.

A local newspaper, on 10 February, quoted Evgeny Kozlov as saying: "If there is no response to our demands, people have the right to adopt methods of civil disobedience and even uprisings".

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February 2005