By Dmitri Minaev and Sean Guillory
The biannual EU-Russia Summit is taking place today in the provincial town of Samara. European-Russian relations, the Middle East, Kosovo independence, and Iran will be some of the main topics of the talks. The Western media is reporting that Putin faces a tough go. Recent clashes with Estonia and trade standoffs with Lithuania and Poland, analysts suggest, have united the EU against Russia. Formerly, member powerhouses Germany and France negotiated deals individually with Russia ignoring the interests of East European member states. Now with new member states blocking EU trade accords with Russia, the rest of the Union seems to be standing firmly behind them. Some even suggest EU-Russia tensions threaten to unravel the Summit.
As with this EU Summit, Russia’s hosting or attendance to international summits have been marred by controversy. Putin’s luster from Russia’s taking the G8 chairmanship in January 2006 was dulled by Western criticism of Russia’s “gas war” with Ukraine. Then at the informal EU-Russia summit in Helsinki in October 2006, journalists hounded Putin with questions about the murders of Alexandr Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya. In addition to all the tension with foreign governments, Putin’s Samara showcase will also be met with yet another Dissenters’ March. A repeat of the heavy police crackdown on the Dissenters’ March in April will only further mar Putin’s image and possibly even relations with the West. But judging from the police’s preemptive action, it appears that the possibility of an increasing confrontation with Europe over how Moscow deals with dissent is hardly a concern.
Local Government Foot Dragging
On May 8, the organizers of the demonstration announced that they had agreed with Samara City administration proposals to shorten the planned route of the march. However, on the next day, the city administration denied this saying that they neither proposed any alternatives nor agreed on any terms with the opposition. Moreover, the city administration sent a letter to the Dissenters offering them to hold a rally in a remote stadium three days later, on May 21. To tell you the truth, I think that the organizers were being a bit provocative when they planned the march along one the city’s busiest roads in the city centre at the end of a work day. Despite this, negotiations between the protesters and the city continued during the week.
The city’s foot dragging spurred a response from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She officially asked Russian authorities to allow the planned march and to show some tolerance toward the protesters. Tomas Steg, a representative of the German government, said: “The critics must have a way to express their point of view. In our discussions with the Russian president we always stress the importance of observing the basic human rights, including the right of assembly.” Concerns about “basic human rights” and the “right of assembly”, however, hasn’t stopped the German government from instituting its own protest ban, which includes erecting a 12 kilometer long fence, for the upcoming G-8 Summit in June.
Germany’s hypocrisy aside, whether the German government’s appeal affected Russia’s policy is difficult to know. But I think that it was a very important moment in the sequence of events. On 11 May, opposition leaders, Anastasia Kurt-Adzhiyeva, Roman Mishurov and Mikhail Merkushev were invited to the city administration and received official permission for the action. This time the agreement was given in the written form. So, the march will take place on 18 May at 17:00 local time. The planned route is very short, less than a kilometer and it will be followed by a rally on the embankment of Volga. Moreover, the administration of Chelyabinsk also gave their permission to hold a Dissenters’ March on May 19, although the route was changed too.
Silencing the Press
This is not to say that the agreement between the protesters and the city means an end to the harassment and repression of the former. The past weeks were full of events. On 3 May, at 8:00 the protest’s organizers arrived to the administration to file their application. At 11:00 they held a press-conference in the Hansa Hotel. During the press-conference, 15-20 policemen entered the hotel and blocked the exits. They demanded visitors (including journalists) to show their IDs and collected the names of all attendants.
Several journalists have been detained. Correspondents of Kommersant and Ren-TV who came to Samara to interview local opposition leaders were detained on the pretext that they did not have necessary identification.
On May 10, all the city’s newsstands were searched for printed materials of the opposition. Police also raided the office of Golos, a grassroots organization for voting rights and confiscated their computers. Golos’ leaders and staff were not present at the office during the raid. Earlier that day, Golos’ director, Lyudmila Kuzmina, had attended a radio program devoted to the upcoming Dissenters’ March. If she had been at the offices, she could have possibly prevented some of the seizures, and if not, at least document violations of the law.
The next day, police raided the office of a local newspaper Novaya gazeta. They confiscated three computers for the alleged use of pirated software. Later that day, tax police confiscated the newspaper’s financial documents. Their real crime? Novaya gazeta was planning to cover the march in its 14 May issue. In addition, Novaya’s editor-in-chief is Sergey Kurt-Adzhiyev. His daughter, Anastasia Kurt-Adzhiyeva, is a member of the organizational committee of the Dissenters’ March in Samara.
Two days later on 13 May, Anastasia Kurt-Adzhiyeva and Yuri Chervinchuk, a member of the National Bolshevik Party, were detained by police. Police claimed that they had information that Kurt-Adzhiyeva had a hand grenade in her bag. When her father came to the police office the next day, he and a Novaya journalist named Mikhail Kuteinikov were also detained. The police officer who detained them refused to give his name and didn’t explain the reasons for their detention, reports Newsru.com and Kasparov.ru All of them were released the next day after a personal plea from Samara mayor Victor Tarkhov. No charges were brought against them.
Another journalist Dmitri Treschanin, who is also a member of the National Bolshevik Party, was apprehended at the railway station when he arrived in Samara. Police sent him to an army conscription point where he was drafted. The drafting officers said the he will be sent to Dagestan. Such are the methods of the local police, who have already promised that “all provocations will be severely suppressed.”
In response, the US-based organization Committee to Protect Journalists has issued an official protest against the prosecution of journalists in Samara. “We’re very troubled by these police actions, which appear timed to obstruct news coverage of a planned public demonstration,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “This harassment is preventing our colleagues from doing their jobs of informing the public, and it should stop at once.” The article also mentions some of the events described above.
Police Harassment, Preemptive Arrests
Journalists were not the only ones to feel the police’s wrath. Here is a list of other incidents of police harassment, detention, and abduction:
- 4 May: Police attempted to detain one of the organizers, Mikhail Gangan, for unexplained reasons. He escaped and is still in hiding. Another activist of the “Prohibited Party Whose Name We Are Not Allowed To Mention” (i.e. the National Bolshevik Party, which has been banned by the Kremlin), Ilya Guryev, who was earlier sentenced to probation for his involvement in seizing an office of the presidential administration building, was arrested.
- 9 May: Eight people who posted leaflets urging citizens to join the protests were detained. The authorities announced that the leaflets used Nazi symbols and provoked national hatred.
- 12 May: Four people distributing leaflets about the Dissenters’ March were detained and accused of “non-compliance with the police orders.”
- Local media in Samara has refused to air commercials about the march. On three occasions advertising departments gladly accepted the ads, only to then notify organizers that they could not run them. Two radio stations, Echo of Moscow in Samara and Avtoradio, and one TV station SKAT, did this.
- Veronika Vinogradova, an activist of the Communist Youth Vanguard (AKM, sic! I find it hard to believe, but young communists also suffer from violations of human rights…) was abducted by unidentified men without explanation. Witnesses say that she was kidnapped from the hostel at Samara Aerospace University. She was pushed into a car and her current location is unknown. Her friends who tried to stop these men were beaten.
- 14 May: Human rights activist Alexander Lashmankin was beaten by unidentified assailants armed with baseball bats. They stole his cell phone and escaped. Police are inclined to think that it was robbery.
- 15 May: Police detained more people using methods that are often reminiscent of kidnapping. Mikhail Merkushin, a member of NBP, was pushed into a car by two unidentified men. He was taken to the police station for three hours. Police explained that he resembled a suspect who stole 800 rubles from a credit card. When he was detained on Friday, he was suspected of beating a child. Another activist, Yuri Chervinchuk, was detained in a similar fashion.
- The rector of Samara Academy of Culture and Art, Margarita Vokhrysheva (whose name strangely reminds of the word vokhra, well known to the prisoners of Gulag. The word is an abbreviation of “armed guard”), stopped classes and asked all students to assemble in the academy’s auditorium. There she instructed them on the “correct behavior” during the EU-Russia summit. She threatened that students who participate in march would have problems on their exams. When a correspondent of the news website 63.ru contacted her, she said that there were no meetings and that she gave no instructions to the students.
- The FSB has asked mobile providers to turn off the encryption of their signal. During the Dissenters’ March in St. Petersburg they went even further and allowed police to track the location of individual cell phones.
The Temperature Rises
What does all this mean for the Dissenter’s March? Will it take place as planned? It depends on how overcome a few obstacles. First, the violence in St. Petersburg (on April 15) started when protesters were already leaving the rally. This might occur again if the Samara march has provocateurs who will attempt to attack the police.
Second, more attempts to discredit the protest’s legitimacy are expected. For example, on 28 April, in Chelyabinsk, a small group of 30 protesters were joined by a group of blondes in red dresses, who held the slogans protesting against insufficient police attention towards blondes. Another group of youths came with skis and skates and “protested” against the coming summer. If the turnout of genuine opposition members in Samara is low, such provocation may turn the protest into a theatre of absurd.
Third, in my opinion, the opposition has made one major blunder. They scheduled the protest for 17:00 on a weekday when most people are still at work. The organizers are mostly university students so the time will not impact their numbers. But it prevents tens or maybe even hundreds of working people from attending the protest.
Despite these obstacles, the march is sure to get international media attention that will compensate for its lack of numbers. Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, Other Russia’s most internationally recognizable representatives, are slated to show up. In a statement to the media, Garry Kasparov said that the scale of the repressions against the organizers of the Samara rally exceeds what they had to face in Moscow one month ago. The Moscow activists decided to launch a picket at the building of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs demanding to stop the prosecutions of the opposition in Samara.
It will also be attended by leaders of two most respectable human rights groups in Russia: Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Helsinki Watch Group and Lev Ponomaryov of the movement “For Human Rights” arrived to Samara to monitor the events.
Dmitri Minaev lives in Samara. He runs the blog De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis.