G8’s Political Theater: Comedy or Tragedy?

As the leaders of the G8 meet in St. Petersburg to discuss energy policy, terrorism, Iran, and infectious diseases, hundreds of activists have gathered in the former Tsarist capital to protest the proceedings. St. Petersburg is no different than past gatherings of international organizations like the G8, IMF, World Bank, WTO or the World Economic Forum. For the past 10 years these meetings have been steadily met with people who see themselves as global citizens bent on challenging a political and economic order they see leaves little room for small “d” democracy.

St. Petersburg is also no different in how these protesters are treated by security and law enforcement. Gatherings are relegated to Kirov stadium on the outskirts of the city where the Russian Social Forum is to be held. Police have locked them in the stadium gates and have prevented activists from carrying their message beyond it. Protests are forbidden in the city center unless they have been approved by the state like the small Communist Party rally. The Russian police have carried out preemptive arrests and have jailed others on a whim. Estimates are that over 200 activists have been arrested.

Organizers expected all of this. They made no illusions as to a low turnout, hoping that at least 2000 activists would show. Visa restrictions, registration woes, costs, and just plain fear kept many away. By all accounts the numbers range in the hundreds. Russian authorities vowed to prevent the G8 from descending into the violence that erupted in Genoa in 2001. With all of this, some activists are surprised that they made it. Alex Kinzer, a 19-year-old activist who traveled from Perm by train, told Mosnews, “I’m surprised I even got here.”

There is a bit of comic irony in the fact that reports about the Russian police’s crackdown on protesters are followed by comments about the country’s antidemocratic practices in general. The methods that are being used in St. Petersburg—preemptive arrests and detention, restricting protests and protesters, caging them in, preventing foreign activists from entering the country—are not new in any way to anti-globalization activists. These weapons of state power have been employed against them for years now. Making Russian actions seem any different, or worse, than protests in the past, whether they were held in Western Europe, the United States, Asia, or Latin America, is laughable. The news coverage of the repression, though welcomed, is rather startling. One suspects that the portrayal of Russia as exception is perhaps a way to mask the rule. The methods to squash protest are as global as the protests themselves. To make Russia an exception in this case is to absolve the widespread and violent repression used against anti-globalization activists in general.

Many activists will argue that this oppression is the reason why the attendance in St. Petersburg is so low. They are right, but only partly. The use of force by the state does work. If it didn’t states wouldn’t use it. However, another reason why the attendance is so low is because the movement itself has waned since 2001. September 11 all but ended the movement in the United States, and to some extent in Europe. The War in Iraq further shifted activism away from global economics. And while attendance to the World Social Forum continues to grow, one wonders what kind of relevance it has at all except for a place were activists meet to debate, preach to the choir, train, and network amongst themselves. Much of the focus on issues of global economics rightly remains in the Global South. After all, they are disproportionately affected, and perhaps because of this, they have had the most success in pushing a populist agenda which has translated into state power. Without the Global South there would be no movement to speak of.

Until now the anti-globalization movement in Russia has been an uncertain force. The radical forces that normally attach themselves to the anti-globalization cause are small. A good sign is that they do seem to be growing. However, some are politically questionable as they embrace nationalism and authoritarianism as core beliefs. It also doesn’t help that Russia’s political opposition is fractured in a political climate where it faces state repression, electoral challenges and little public support.

Nothing showed this more than the Other Russia Conference which was held this week. The three political parties that actually have electoral support, Yabloko, the Communist Party, and the Union of Right, refused to attend. Those who did attend included a potpourri of the Russian political fringe: the National Bolsheviks, the Red Youth Vanguard, ex-Premier Mikhail Kasyanov (who incidentally got punched in the face by a member of the Eurasian Youth League), chess champion and presidential hopeful Gary Kasparov, and Viktor Anpilov of the Working Russia movement. This motley crew dubbed themselves “Russia’s real civil society,” a phrase commentator Sergei Roy took great umbrage to, opting to instead call the forum the “Lunatic Fringe Zoo.”

However much one may have sympathy for the conference, Roy does have a point. How seriously should such a forum be taken when even the real electoral opposition shuns it? It also doesn’t help that much of its funding came from Soros’s Open Society and the National Endowment for Democracy, thus heightening suspicion that the opposition is a CIA front. However paranoid this may sound, the Russians do have some reasons. Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” received support from the same foundations. The latter outfit in particular is funded by the Untied States government. It also doesn’t help that the “Other Russia” was attended by such high profile neo-con figures as Daniel Fried, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Barry Lowenkron, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. On Wednesday, Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo, didn’t hesitate to point out how utterly typical that an American outfit like the National Endowment for Democracy, whose slogan is “Spreading Freedom Around the World,” would fund a conference where a group like the National Bolshevik Party would attend. The NBP’s symbol of a black Soviet hammer and sickle on a Nazi flag melds the two of the 20th centuries most powerful, and violent authoritarian systems.

It is hard to take away anything positive from all this political theater. Every side seems to have been perfectly stage managed. Putin struts across the world stage showing Russia’s new found strength and assertions that Russian democracy will proceed on its own path. Yet when it comes to handling anti-globalization protests Russia’s path seems so similar to the path already practiced by many of the world’s model democracies. Then we have Bush’s challenge to Russian democracy easily swatted away with Putin remarking, “”Well, of course, we wouldn’t want the same kind of democracy as in Iraq, I’ll say that quite honestly.” Bush’s response, “Just wait.” What the hell is that supposed to mean!? Still, Bush stood firm and didn’t give his blessing to Russia’s entry into the WTO. However, they did agree on a deal that would allow American nuclear waste to be stored in Russia! Somehow that doesn’t help me sleep at night.

The big losers are probably the so-called Russian opposition and the anti-globalization movement. The movement not only revealed its weakness, it showed its irrelevance. There are no signs of any real opposition to the Putin’s handpicked successor and United Russia candidate in 2008. Not to mention any possibility of an “orange” anything. As for the anti-globalists, and I should say that I cast my ideological support with them, I’m still waiting for them to stand for something besides being against the nightmare we already have. Perhaps it is time to take a cue from the Global South and build a real movement in the North that doesn’t simply organize for the next big protest. Mass protest seems so late 1990s, amyway.

On second thought, the biggest losers of all are the residents of St. Petersburg. The place sounds like a prison. I’m sure anyone with half a brain fled to their dachas.