Russia: Moscow’s streets a ‘battle ground’ as police attack anti-Putin demonstrations

Protesters respond by setting up ‘Occupy-Abai’

On the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration into his third term as Russian President, the Russian authorities once again used police force to quell opposition. A 40,000-strong opposition protest on 6 May was violently broken up by the riot police. Since then a series of cat and mouse chases through Moscow streets has led to the establishment of a permanent occupation in the Chistie Prudie area – around the statue of Abai Kunanbayev – the nineteenth century symbol of the struggle for freedom of the Kazakh people. The site has become known as “Occupy-Abai”.

Protesters move to the left

The march on 6 May was significant for a number of reasons. Although smaller than some of those in December, the determination of the participants was more marked and there was a clear shift to the left among the participants. A sociological survey that analysed the character of those who participated last December drew the conclusion: “In December, 20% of the protesters had their own production facilities and another 10% were managers, while only 10% were “dependents” (pensioners, students, invalids and school students). Of the 60% who worked, half had wages higher than average and only 11% lower”. In May 2012, however, these researchers discovered, obviously to their distaste, that “the protesters had been significantly marginalized. There was a significant drop in those having their own businesses and managers. But there has been a significant growth in the number of ‘dependents’, low paid workers and what was surprising a new protest group has emerged – the working class”.

They went on to report that the demands of the protesters had changed. In December, mainly liberal democratic demands were the most popular – for new elections, freedom of the press and so on. But in May, the demands that had come to the fore, they reported, included those for the nationalization of industry, progressive taxation and extra taxes for the rich.

Of course, this should not be understood in a one-sided way. The proportion of politicized participants is undoubtedly higher and the position of the ultra-right and liberals has significantly weakened. The researchers quoted above are clearly contemptuous of the working class. They therefore ignored the fact that even in the early protests the vast majority were wage earners. Although since December there has been a significant increase in the number of strikes and workers’ protests, there is still a lot of political confusion amongst the participants.

Position of CWI confirmed

Nevertheless, the researchers’ observations confirm both what the CWI in Russia predicted would happen at the beginning of the protests and what the CWI is now experiencing. The response of left wing groups to the protests in December was, in most cases, to say the least, confused. A section, mainly those with a past link to the Stalinist regime, saw the protests as alien, a reflection of ‘orange’ (that is, foreign imperialist) influence. Another section of the left, seeing that in the early stages the protests were indeed led by the liberal intelligentsia, failed to offer a clear alternative, tail-ending their programme to that of the liberal opposition and restricting their participation to the waving of red party flags. At the beginning, the CWI was practically isolated in raising social, economic and political demands, such as nationalization, the need for a workers’ party and a constituent assembly. But many of those liberals who had been part of the leadership of the protests have pulled away, either because they no longer need the protests to bolster their position before the elections or for fear of the protests becoming too radical. In particular, this is the case with Mikhail Prokorov – the oligarch delegated by the Kremlin to set up a safe “liberal” opposition.

Politicisation of “single-demand” protests

During the march, as on May Day, activists from the women’s’ rights, LGBT and environmental campaigns, joined up with the CWI contingent. At least twice, we were forced to physically defend our contingent from attack by thugs in masks, who claimed to be defending a “pure Russia”. Seeing that we were well organized and unified in defence, they held off. When the riot police attacked, these defenders of a “pure Russia” were not to be seen. But at the forefront of the struggle, were LGBT activists. This is particularly significant, because until recently, these activists were reluctant for many reasons to openly participate in political struggle. However, since the protests last December, the regime has passed a number of repressive anti-LGBT laws. It seems the politicization of this layer has happened quicker than for other sections and the LGBT activists are now to be seen at the forefront of struggle. This was demonstrated on Moscow’s 1 May march, when dozens of activists from these campaigns joined with the CWI contingent.

Searching for a way forward

The cynical way in which some of the opposition liberal leaders have taken up the campaign against Putin, and then dropped it again, has already led to much questioning amongst the protesters about the way forward. Some liberals are, of course, still involved. For example, the right-wing blogger Navalnii, interviewed on TV following the 6 May events, was asked what the strategy of the opposition should now be. He alienated a new layer of protesters by answering, “We keep running from the riot police until we get democracy”. While Navalnii can afford to spend two weeks in prison after every demonstration, for many of the young people involved, it would mean they would lose their jobs or college places. The regime has now used new tactics to discourage youth from participating – protesters from non-Russian ethnic backgrounds face special police checks before joining demonstration, to make sure they are not “illegal migrants”. Those arrested by the police have been warned that their names will be turned over to the army to ensure they have not skipped conscription. In addition and unmentioned by the Western media, is the new law currently being pushed through the Duma, which will impose huge fines on those participating in ‘illegal’ demonstrations.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that the approach of left leaders, in particular Sergei Udaltsov from the Left Front, differs little from that of Navalnii. It was Udaltsov who announced a month ago that May 6th would be the “March of the millions”, which he argued would be the culmination of the series of demonstrations, beginning last December, and which, at one stage, mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. But since announcing the grandiosely named march, the organisers have spent most of their time arguing amongst themselves and with the police about the route it would take. They ignored the most important tasks; to engage the activists in discussions about slogans and tactics, to turn the activists outwards to attract a wider layer, in particular to workers and youth and appealing to them to take part in the protests. They did not even consider conducting any work to create a genuine political alternative capable of representing the working masses.

Empty posturing

Having failed to do any of this, Udaltsov and his Left front were left with only one option – to fall back on those tactics traditionally used when there is no clearly worked out strategy – to try and give the protests some point through meaningless “direct action”, in this case a sit down protest to block the road to the Kremlin, which they knew would lead inevitably to a confrontation with the police.

The march on 6 May was peaceful up to a bridge over the river that goes to the Kremlin. Unlike in December and January, when the police had been ordered to conduct themselves ‘civilly’, this time there was no such goodwill from the police. Everyone was searched entering the square and even water and food was confiscated – the authorities were afraid a ‘tent city’ would be set up.

As CWI supporters approached the bridge and to turn into a park, the march suddenly halted. Udaltsov and his Left front had started a sit-down protest, demanding to be allowed to cross the bridge. In an attempt to maintain their political authority, given their absence of programme and strategy, and without any attempts to prepare the rest of the marchers for the tactic, their actions were seen by some as a provocation. Their attempts to set up a protest camp on the spot were quickly broken up by the riot police.

But the sit down gave the signal to the riot police to attack the rest of the march. Those who had reached the park and were listening to the music and waiting for speeches, found themselves charged by the riot police with truncheons, who had decided to break up the whole demonstration. It is clear that the police knew of the sit down tactic in advance and had prepared. But they did not expect so many protesters. The clashes therefore went out of police control and set a bad precedent for the following day’s inauguration.

It took many hours for the riot police to clear the streets. The protestors, in many cases, were able to defend themselves and sometimes even went onto the offensive. There were some attempts to set up barricades but apart from a few rubbish containers and portable toilets, the authorities have long cleared the centre of debris that could be used by protesters. The riot police were ruthless. If not attacking everyone with truncheons, they managed to attack a large part of the demonstration. But it is now clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to scare people from protesting with police truncheons and shields. This was understood even by a small number of police. There are several cases when riot police refused to obey their officers’ orders to arrest peaceful protesters.

New forms of protest

Given the low level of organization and political understanding of the leaders on the protests, it is inevitable that such clashes will eventually end in a “win” for the state. It took them a lot of effort though. It meant that the opposition needed to find other ways to protest. In one humorous protest, a group of painters set up their easels overlooking the canal at the city’s main cathedral. In solidarity with the white ribbon protests, they started to paint landscapes using white paint on white paper, while the confused police circled them, considering what excuse they could use to stop this form of protest.

Almost every type of organized protest in Russia requires special permission from the state or it is automatically illegal. One thing that the regime has not managed to restrict yet is the right of people to go for strolls along the city’s main boulevards, which are beautiful at this time of year. Following the violent break-up of the demonstration on 6 May, the call went out for people to “go for strolls” along the boulevards. Three days of ‘cat and mouse’ chases through the street of Moscow ensued, with the riot police trying to control those “strolling” and protesters occupying a boulevard beside Chistie Prudi. “Occupy-Abai” has now entered the vocabulary of the protest movement.

All this took place against the background of Putin’s inauguration as President on 7 May and the vote in the State Duma (Parliament) confirming his nomination of Medvedev as Premier. When the votes were counted, Medvedev failed to get the promised two-thirds majority, leaving Putin criticizing his own vote-rigged Duma. ‘Victory Day’, on 9 May, is usually used by the regime as a huge patriotic holiday but was spoiled when a Russian-made Sukhoi ‘Regional SuperJet’ tragically crashed in Indonesia. This plane is the first civil aircraft designed and produced in Russia since the collapse of the USSR. The future of the whole Russian aviation industry is tied to the success of this aircraft and must now be under question.

What does Occupy-Abai represent?

As the fighting continued in the streets of Moscow, the slogans chanted by the protesters became noticeably more politicized. There was also louder criticism from protesters at the way in which the protests were always organized top-down, as if people who were being asked to risk beatings, arrests, up to 15 days in prison and the loss of jobs and college places, have no interest on the strategy and tactics used in the struggle. The participation of the CWI in the heart of the Occupy-Abai protests helped to crystallise this mood. Rather than sitting around waiting to be organized, people organized themselves. Food-rotas and rubbish collection was organised, as well as guards against possible right wing attacks.

Politicization of the occupation

When police tried to remove the portable toilets from the boulevard last Thursday, the occupiers successfully defended the cabins. The Occupy-Abai has become a ‘school’ not just for organization but for political education. A central information stand was set up, where leaflets are distributed (for a donation to cover costs) for activists to bring to their schools, colleges and workplaces. Special discussions are held, on issues like ‘how to spread the protest movement?’ and ‘how to organize a strike?’ Political seminars are held on the lessons of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, developments in Kazakhstan and Belarus, anti-fascism and many other issues. A special edition of the CWI paper has been produced and warmly welcomed.

The regime under threat

At the time of writing, despite attempts by the regime to deny the scale of the protests and threats to mobilise the pro-Kremlin youth onto the boulevards to disrupt the protests, they are growing. A couple of thousand are gathered at Occupy-Abai site and tens of thousands of people are on a “stroll” from the city’s central Pushkin square in the direction of Chisti Prudi. As these types of protests are joined by social and worker protests, as the working class becomes an organized force in these protests, Putin will find that his regime is beginning to be under threat and will fear he will not last his designated six years as President.

But it requires more than just street clashes and street strolls to change the regime. It is necessary to establish committees of action based in schools, workplaces and housing areas to organize and mobilise for future protests. It is also necessary for there to be a clear political alternative to be posed. This means opposing the proposed new laws further commercializing education and healthcare, opposing the planned new pension ‘reform’ and opposing all budget cuts. To those who say there is not enough money, we say that the huge and mushrooming police, security and defense budgets should be slashed and that the banks and country’s huge natural resources should be nationalized, under democratic workers control and management.

The slogan, “Russia without Putin”, is meaningless if it just means Putin is replaced by another of his type. We say that the post of President should be abolished and Putin and the government should resign. There should be elections held to a constituent assembly where representatives of working people, youth and minorities can decide on what form of government they wish.

Most of all a new workers’ party is required, which will fight for and defend all democratic rights, the right to free speech, assembly and organization and which can form a government on a socialist programme. This radical programme would include social ownership and the democratic planning of the economy to ensure that the country’s wealth can be used by the people and not the oligarchs.

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