Irate Russians raise their voices

SUN JOURNAL

Protest: In demonstrations large and small, angry citizens are calling government officials to account.

February 16, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - This time, the protesters were from a small town two time zones east of the capital, demonstrating yesterday against an alleged police rampage - and joining a chorus of protests that is breaking out across Russia.

About three dozen demonstrators from Bashkortostan, a predominantly Muslim Russian republic just west of the Ural Mountains, gathered under a mammoth statue of Lenin near the Oktyabrskaya Metro station here to demand that federal authorities file criminal charges against high-ranking regional officials.

Over much of the past decade, Russians have earned a reputation for political passivity. But in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to voice grievances.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, about 257,000 people attended rallies in 70 cities Saturday. Most of the protests were to demand the resignation of President Vladimir V. Putin and his government because of pension changes.

But a 40,000-strong demonstration in Moscow in support of Putin drew the most coverage on the country's major television news broadcasts, which generally reflect the world the way the Kremlin would like to see it.

Yesterday's little group of protesters accused officials of ordering police to stage roundups and beatings of teenagers in Blagoveshchensk, a town in the oil-rich region north of the Bashkortostan provincial capital, Ufa, over the course of four days in early December.

Hundreds of high school-age youths were dragged out of apartments and cafes, kicked and hit with fists and rifle butts, the protesters say. Three of the youths were hospitalized with serious injuries; at least eight girls told a Russian reporter they had been raped by riot police.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, was the residents' determination yesterday to hold government officials accountable.

The season of protest has interrupted what critics say is the Kremlin's long campaign to smother political opposition.

This week, for example, Putin proposed replacing 50 of 178 members of the Federation Council, the usually docile upper chamber of parliament. Citing a source in the chamber, the Moscow Times said Putin acted out of fear that the upper house - whose members are chosen by regional governors and legislatures - could provide a political platform for his foes.

Last year Putin pushed through legislation ending the direct election of the governors. This followed the Kremlin taking de-facto control of the nation's major news networks and tightening its control on functions from judicial appointments to the licensing of nonprofit groups.

Compared with the marches Saturday, the protest here yesterday by residents of Blagoveshchensk was minuscule. But their charges have drawn national attention, especially from the muckraking newspaper Novaya Gazetta and the lone independent voice among national broadcasters, Ekho Moskvy talk radio.

An Interior Ministry official visited Bashkortostan several weeks ago to conduct an investigation. And the local prosecutor's office announced Monday that it was charging the head of the Interior Ministry troops in Blagoveshchensk with "exceeding authority." Five other militia officials face similar charges.

But protesters say the official investigation is so far little more than a cover-up, one that has under-reported both the scale and severity of the police action.

"Two and a half months have passed, and the prosecutor has not done anything," said Lyudmilla Lazareva, 53, the mother of a 17-year-old boy who spent a month in the hospital with head injuries after the roundup. "Our sons were cruelly beaten, and they've done nothing."

Demonstrators gathered under the statue of Lenin, across the street from the Interior Ministry headquarters, shortly before noon. They were quickly surrounded by gray-uniformed ministry officers, who kept passers-by at least 50 yards away.

One woman held up a sign that read: "The Beating of Blagoveshchensk is the Shame of Russia!" A man held a poster that read: "Yesterday Chechnya, Today Blagoveshchensk, Tomorrow All of Russia."

Later, the protesters were ushered into the ministry for a private meeting with Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Shadrin, who said the investigation into conduct by local Interior Ministry officials was continuing.

Ildar Isangulov, a Bashkortostan human rights activist who acted as spokesman for the demonstrators, said the deputy minister promised more charges would soon be filed. But Islangulov said that families would continue to pressure officials to pursue the investigation.

As described by the residents, and reported by Marat Khayrulin, a journalist for Novaya Gazetta who has written extensively about the events, the problems began Dec. 8, when three Blagoveshchensk businessmen critical of the town's mayor scuffled with police during a traffic stop. There were no injuries or arrests, according to Khayrulin.

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