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Anti-Putin protesters march in Moscow, but momentum weakened

Tens of thousands turned out for today’s protest, but their numbers have dwindled from Putin’s inauguration 12 months ago — likely due to the Kremlin’s criminal cases against the protest leaders.

Anti-Kremlin protesters gathering over the past two days on Moscow‘s downtown Bolotnaya Square say they’re determined to keep their dwindling movement alive despite a massive state crackdown, which has seen the arrests of nearly 30 activists and opposition leaders, most of whom now face severe prison sentences for inciting “mass unrest” and physically attacking police.

About 1,000 protesters marched to Bolotnaya Square on Sunday, and ended their rally with a call for authorities to release all the suspects in the burgeoning criminal case, now widely termed the “Bolotnaya affair.” On Monday, a much larger rally – police estimated 8,000, organizers said 30,000 – met on the square to sound many of the familiar anti-bureaucracy, anti-Putin themes of the movement, and also to demand that “political prisoners” be freed.

But the fractured nature of the protests, along with the sharply diminished numbers from 12 months ago, suggest the movement has been seriously weakened, and wearied, by a year of dramatic legal, social, and political changes.

The drastic turn of fortunes for Russia‘s now beleaguered opposition began on Bolotnaya Square exactly one year ago when a peaceful rally on the eve of President Vladimir Putin‘s inauguration for his third term suddenly erupted in violence and, amid a confusing melee, over 600 people were arrested. Most were quickly released.

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But the Kremlin’s Investigative Committee subsequently created a special 200-member task force of investigators to unravel the alleged conspiracy underlying the “riot.” That has led to a wave of arrests and serious criminal charges against more than two dozen activists that suggest authorities believe much more was afoot that day than a scuffle on the fringes of an otherwise peaceful mass meeting.

A broad crackdown

How the “Bolotnaya affair” plays out in the weeks to come – as many of those arrested come due for trials that could end in up to 13-year prison sentences – will tell much about the direction Russia is likely to take in the next five years of Mr. Putin’s third Kremlin term.

The cases, which are likely to dominate summertime news cycles, include elaborate conspiracy charges against Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov and two associates, who are accused of plotting violent revolution at the behest of foreign interests and with financing from anti-Kremlin exiles abroad. Russian security services take the case against Mr. Udaltsov so seriously that theyallegedly kidnapped one of his co-defendants, Leonid Razvozzhayev, from a Kiev street last October and brought him secretly to Russia.

Twenty-five others, including opposition Coordination Council member Alexei Gaskarov, who was arrested in late April, are accused of fomenting violence against police on Bolotnaya Square. One who cooperated with the prosecution, Maxim Luzyanin, was sentenced last November to four-and-a-half years; another who confessed, Konstantin Lebedev, got two-and-a-half years.

Police say they are still searching for about 70 others allegedly implicated in the “unrest” a year ago.

Another protest leader, anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny, also faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of embezzlement related to his work for a provincial timber company 4 years ago. That case had been dropped for lack of evidence, but after Mr. Navalny became an active protest leader it was revived.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper last month, Vladimir Markin, a spokeman for the Investigative Committee, admitted the case against Navalny was at least spurred by political considerations. “If a person tries with all his strength to attract attention, or if I may put it this way, teases authorities – saying ‘look at me, I’m so good compared to everyone else’ – well, then interest in his past grows and the process of exposing him naturally speeds up,” Mr. Markin said.

“In 20 years of working in Russia, we have never seen a crackdown on civil society of this magnitude,” says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of the Russian branch of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“These trials against protesters have to be viewed in a wider context, including a massive ongoing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, and a new law that changes the definition of treason so that it can apply to almost any Russian who interacts with a foreign organization,” she says. “It’s not really the NGOs that the authorities appear most afraid of. They’re worried about public protest, and one of the objectives behind these trials is likely to send a warning, particularly to younger people: ‘Before you take to the streets, think twice.'”

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“It’s a strong message, particularly when you consider that many of these Bolotnaya defendants have been languishing in pre-trial custody for almost a year. If you know anything about the conditions in those prisons, you know that’s a really unpleasant possibility to contemplate,” Ms. Lokshina says.

The authorities’ case

The authorities’ case against the Bolotnaya suspects rests mainly on testimony of police officers, but also on videos and photos taken by police during the melee that occurred when columns of protesters entering Bolotnaya Square pressed up against massed ranks of riot troops who were blocking entrance to a bridge that leads directly to the Kremlin. According to police, protest organizers tried to use the pressure of crowds to break through police cordons, and photos appear to show a few protesters wrestling with police, throwing chunks of asphalt, and otherwise behaving violently.

Many reasonable political experts find the charges convincing.

“On May 6 [2012] there was a provocation that was deliberately prepared and organized,” says Dmitry Orlov, head of the independent Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow.

“Organizers called on people to sit down, blocking the movement of other columns. Their actions led to violence, and they are responsible for the clashes. I think they meant to use force, to take some aggressive actions…. On the other hand, I don’t believe in a wider conspiracy. I don’t believe any major international force was behind these events, be it the US State Department orGeorgia. All that needs much more detailed study,” Mr. Orlov says.

“We’ve already had a conviction of at least one participant in these events [Luzyanin] who has admitted his guilt. I don’t think he was put under psychological pressure or something. After all, as President Putin said recently, this isn’t 1937,” he adds.

Provocation by police?

But a 40-page report prepared by an independent committee made up of several public figures and rights activists concluded last month that police had provoked the violence by massing forces into a tight bottleneck that squeezed the surging crowds trying to enter Bolotnaya Square and propelled protesters into contact with metal barriers and the shielded-and-armored ranks of riot troops.

The committee spent four months, interviewed over 600 witnesses, and pored over hundreds of photos and hours of video taken by participants in the rally.

“Our report proves that there was no ‘mass unrest’ that day,” says Valery Borshchev, a former judge, chairman of the Russian Justice Ministry’s public council, and a co-author of the report.

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“Yes, there were individual instances of physical resistance and disobedience to the police, but these are violations of the civil code, not the criminal code,” he adds.

The report also provides evidence, including photos and videos, of a group of “masked men” who moved freely through the police ranks, but were caught on tape shouting extremist slogans, pushing police and protesters, and throwing objects at police officers.

“This is something that needs to be answered. The Investigative Committee has not looked into this, yet we have demonstrated that there were a group of provocateurs – we have pictures of these people – throwing asphalt at the police and trying to whip up the crowd,” says Mr. Borshchev.

“Yet none of those provocateurs are among those who’ve been detained. This is very worrisome…. There is a growing pattern [on the part of the authorities] to instigate tensions in society to distract from real problems, to stress the accusatory note in administering justice, and to identify enemies” rather than enforce laws evenhandedly, he says.

‘A powerless and frustrated anger’

If the street protest movement is waning, that is probably not a sign that the grievances that sparked it have been addressed, says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center‘s Pro et Contra journal.

“I don’t think there’s less anger out there these days. Nobody has the sense that anything they were protesting about before, be it corruption or electoral fraud, has been solved,” she says.

“But when you see you’re facing a concrete wall, of course many get demoralized. When the protests started, there was this naive enthusiasm that ‘we’re all together, we can change things,’ and the authorities reacted at first with tolerance…. But now people realize that just having the emotions isn’t enough. Few appreciated the vast advantages the state enjoys” to wear people down, change the rules, punish leaders, and raise the stakes for those who still try to protest, Ms. Lipman says.

“The outrage is still there, but it’s tinged with demoralization. A lot of people feel it’s pointless to protest, you can’t change anything. It’s a powerless and frustrated anger, but it’s not gone,” she adds.