ST. PETERSBURG and MOSCOW -- At the end of Monday's anti-Kremlin rally in central Moscow, Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of the Other Russia opposition movement, announced that he and the other organizers had decided against marching out of the designated rally area in Pushkin Square, a move which the city authorities had already rejected, and which would inevitably have led to clashes with riot police and the OMON, Russia's paramilitary forces.
"There are too many OMON forces waiting for us," Kasparov said into the microphone. "But the fact that we have decided not to march out of here isn't our defeat, it's the Kremlin's defeat, and that - ..."
Kasparov's voice suddenly vanished. The police had pulled the plug on the sound system. Their allotted 90 minutes was up.
Thus ended a surprisingly peaceful weekend of protests, the first in St. Petersburg on Saturday, the second in Moscow on Monday (along with a smaller march Tuesday in the northern port city of Murmansk). There was a palpable sense of letdown when the rally broke up without any serious incidents both among protesters, many of them young and curious, ranging from middle-class bohemians and professionals to left-wing radicals, many who had come expecting to confront The Man; and disappointment among the unruly swarms of Western journalists who vastly outnumbered their Russian counterparts, and who came with expectations of witnessing the Russian police state in action.
Up until this past weekend, there appeared to be an increasingly-dangerous trajectory in the Kremlin's strategy to crush the opposition movement, which seeks to end President Vladimir Putin's ever-tightening control over the country's politics and its media. It was a trajectory that seemed to be leading inexorably towards greater bloodshed and violence, perhaps something cathartic and awful, like a Russian Tiananmen Square. Rallies in St. Petersburg in March and April, and in Moscow in April, all featured overwhelming government forces pitted against a few thousand protesters, capped by savage and at times seemingly indiscriminate beatings and arrests.
The one exception was the way the Kremlin handled a planned protest last month in Samara, a Volga River city, during an EU summit there. That time, rather than attack protesters, the authorities allowed the march to go ahead, but arrested scores of activists in the days leading up to the protest, and detained the opposition leaders, along with scores of Western journalists, at the airport in Moscow, thereby strangling the rally in its bed. This "softer" strategy didn't lead to a quieter reaction: the opposition leaders came off as victims and heroes in the Western press and what remains of Russia's free media, while German chancellor Angela Merkel openly clashed with Putin during the post-summit press conference in Samara. Observers and opposition leaders were left wondering if the Kremlin had intentionally created a PR fiasco, and if it meant that Putin had now decided that he didn't give a damn what the West thought about him.
It was under this atmosphere of fear, paranoia, intrigue and guesswork that the opposition headed into this past weekend's rallies.
Things got weird even before we flew to St. Petersburg on Saturday. While Putin was hosting CEOs from around the world at his pet Economic Forum conference in Russia's Second City, authorities in Moscow scrupulously checked the Other Russia entourage's documents, in what seemed like a possible repeat of the Samara strategy; but at the last second, we were allowed onto the plane. When we landed in St. Petersburg, the stewardess announced over the intercom that all passengers had to show their passports to police guards waiting at the airplane's door.
On the drive from Pulkovo airport into central St. Petersburg, Kasparov's bodyguards pointed out at least two inconspicuous cars one, a blue Lada, the other a Volga which were following us. At a stoplight, a goon's thick arm poked out of the partially-opened smoked window, flicking a cigarette onto the street, before withdrawing back into the rickety Lada's shadowed interior. Just then, one of Kasparov's bodyguards called from Moscow, clearly shaken: he'd been "visited" by police at his home that morning, and was warned not to continue working with the opposition.