By CWI reporters in Russia
Undemocratic Moscow elections
Elections to Moscow city council take place next Sunday. All the main independent, mainly liberal, candidates have not only been excluded from the election but 13 have spent most of the past few weeks in prison. Each weekend there have been protests organized, mainly illegal during which thousands have been arrested. All opposition demonstrations planned for this week-end were banned – at least four groups, including SA had been applying for permission.
Students protest against repression
Photos – organisers
Against this background Socialist Alternative in Moscow was preparing for the week-end. Student activists organized in ‘Comm-Unity’, a student trade union set up by SA, a new school students union and initiative groups at different universities have discussed organizing a protest against the political harassment of students.
On Friday evening we planned a demonstration. The Moscow authorities refused to allow this and the courts upheld the ban. Rather than expose students to inevitable arrest, we decided we would organize a public debate on students’ rights in the disguise of a series of lectures in the ‘Yama’ – an open-air amphitheatre in central Moscow where youth gather in the evenings. On Friday morning the Moscow police issued a statement on their site warning that they would not allow such a gathering and that the ‘Yama’ would be ‘closed for the day’.
With just one and a half hours notice, Comm-Unity managed to agree with the ‘Sakharov Centre’ – the main human rights centre named after the Soviet dissident – to use their hall on the condition ‘no politics!’ Nevertheless, with no alternative we went ahead – 250-300 students flooded into the hall to hear a series of speakers. One drew parallels with France 1968 – the main difference, he pointed out was that in general French students came from better-off families, whilst in Russia today most students are also highly exploited young workers, who have to work to finance their studies. Another speaker – a young lecturer – explained how their work was becoming more and more difficult. Mitya, member of SA who chaired the meeting spoke on behalf of Comm-Unity to outline the need for organization, to fight police repression, to fight for democracy in education and most importantly against the education cutbacks and for decent living conditions for students and young workers.
The police, of course, did interfere. Some students known to the police were contacted and warned not to participate. Around the ‘Yama’ the riot police waited in case anything happened. Significantly their commander was the same individual who had headed ‘Berkut”, the police unit that had carried out the brutal killings of protesters in Kiev during ‘EuroMaidan’. Part of the way during the meeting at the Sakharov centre, the PA system was jammed and the internet cut off.
Photos from top left clockwise – Viktor Guseqnov, Petr Generalov, Anton Andriyenko for Meduza and Evgeniy Razumniy for Vedemosti
One of the protests that had been banned on Saturday was against domestic violence organized by ‘Socialist-Feminist Alternative’ in defense of the Khachaturin sisters, three young women who in desperation killed their father after years of violence and rape. The tactic of the opposition when marches are banned has been to organize a ‘walk around the boulevard’ usually harassed by the riot police. They are usually marked by the complete lack of any central organization and political direction. This Saturday’s attracted several thousand mainly youth, but was smaller as the ‘opposition candidates’ and Navalnii in particular have said there is no point marching again before the election.
Members of SFA however were determined to publicly demonstrate. A banner and placards were prepared for use, when possible, on the ‘boulevard walk’. We expected to be able to unfold our banner for at best a minute or two before police intervention –comrades came prepared with extra phone batteries and food in case of arrest.
The police, however, held back worried that more police violence a week before the election could provoke an explosion. So SFA ended up leading the whole column along the boulevard with chants against domestic violence, to free political prisoners and for an active boycott of the election without a choice. One TV commentator reported that the feminists at the front seemed to want everything – an end to domestic violence, democracy and the overthrow of the oligarchs!
An active boycott
Our call for an ‘active boycott’ of the election gained an echo. (Active boycott means voting and overwriting the ballot paper, trying to undermine any fraud with public protests etc). Navalnii and the liberal opposition call for ‘Smart voting’ – voting for the candidate best placed to beat the United Russia candidate. The stupidity of this tactic was demonstrated over the week-end when the ‘communist’ candidate for Governor of St Petersburg withdrew, giving the United Russia candidate an almost certain victory. He explained that his candidacy had been agreed with the Kremlin but they became worried when polls started to show he might win. When he then suggested to the national leadership of the communist party that he should start a proper campaign to win, they withdrew funding.
Arriving in the square at the end of the ‘boulevard walk’ our comrades continued the protest despite a violent attack on our comrades by the far-right (Kremlin financed) ‘National Liberation Movement’ thugs. They were beaten off by the other participants. Five minutes later a religious procession led by a priest passed in front of us!
We left the square as the riot police were preparing to clear it full of confidence and without arrests.