(Dis)connecting with the President

As I wrote almost a year ago, youth politics in Russia is polarized between two youths. And the two “actions” this weekend, one in Nizhni Novgorod and the other in Moscow, prove that among political youth the chasm between pro and anti-Putin youth is vast.

For example, take the first action in Nizhni. Hundreds of activists from Other Russia were swarmed by truncheon wielding police. City officials denied the organizers a permit to hold the protest in the center of the city but allowed it to be held in its outskirts. To their credit, the organizers held the protest anyway, though it is possible the lack of a permit made the turnout in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Reports say that the police outnumbered the crowd of mostly youths. Thirty protesters were arrested. And like always police engaged in preemptive arrests.

Among those arrested was Marina Litvinovich, an aide to liberal opposition figure Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned fierce critic of Putin.

Litvinovich told The Associated Press that she was detained, to prevent her from protesting, as she was driving into the city, on the grounds that her personal car was on a list of stolen vehicles. She was released several hours later, only to be arrested a second time for the same purported reason.

Morar said two other organizers detained ahead of the rally were in custody on suspicion of terrorist activity. She said they have been accused of distributing pamphlets with instructions on how to become a terrorist.

Regional police spokesman Alexander Gorbatov said that only about 30 people had been detained for holding an unauthorized protest.

It was unclear what would happen to the protesters who were detained. Under Russian law, police can hold suspects for up to 3 days, after which they must either be released or a court must sanction their arrest for a longer period of time, pending investigation.

To further discredit the legitimacy of the protests, Novgorod deputy governor Sergei Potapov claimed that the protesters were receiving funds from American and European NGOs.

These events are in stark contrast to Nashi’s Komsomolesque action in Moscow. Fifteen thousand Nashists flooded Moscow’s streets in an action called “Connecting with the President,” giving out Putin’s cell phone number to passerby so they could send him a text message. The action commemorated the seventh year anniversary of Putin becoming president. In contrast to the above protest in Nizhni, “the event’s participants were peaceful and did not disturb order. There were no detentions,” reported Itar-Tass. The Nashi action was not without police presence. An estimated 5000 police were deployed to ensure “law and order.” A 5000 strong police escort is probably a better way of thinking about this.

A Nashi poster asked who Russians wanted for their next president, with pictures of past leaders from Catherine the Great to Josef Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev and Putin.

The organization’s members descended on Moscow from throughout the country, with participants saying they came from locations including Bryansk, on the border with Ukraine; the Volga River city of Saratov; and Vladikavkaz in the south.

Festivities began Saturday as members slept in tents in a Moscow suburb, one of the group’s commissars told dpa. The following day, dozens of buses brought the youths to central Moscow, where Vasily Yakemenko, the group’s leader, and commissars spoke before a crowd.

Police closed Prospekt Sakharova, a busy central street named after Soviet-era human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, and guarded the group’s buses. Members, accompanied on the metro by police escorts, struck out to compass the city.

Dressed in identical red-and-white jackets, baseball caps and shoulder bags emblazoned with the slogan ‘Don’t Oversleep Russia – The President’s Phone Number,’ Nashi members presented passersby with nine questions, most of them about the West and the United States.

One can’t ignore the sad irony that police closed down Prospekt Sakharova so Nashi could have their protest. Such is what passes for youth politics in Russia.

Update: I think an interesting comparison between Russian and American police tactics against protesters can be made. Those interested should read the NY Times article, “City Police Spied Broadly Before GOP Convention.”