`Other Russia' speaks out

Opposition groups from left, right meet ahead of G-8 summit

July 13, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- They spoke of political repression, compliant courts, stifled news media, institutionalized corruption and human rights lapses - all the elements of a society that is not free.

The most prominent figures in Russia's political opposition gathered yesterday and Tuesday to deliver a message that they are resigned to having drowned out when the summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations opens in St. Petersburg on Saturday: There is not one Russia, but two.

"One is the official Russia, which is like a big Potemkin village," said Andrei Illarionov, President Vladimir V. Putin's former economics adviser, who has offered some of the harshest criticism of the administration. "The other Russia is the Russia of citizens. Today, there is a threat to the other Russia."

"The Other Russia" was also the name of the forum, which served as a kind of anti-G-8 organized by some of the Kremlin's most enthusiastic, eloquent and persistent critics.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who retired from the game last year to devote himself to opposition politics, said that Putin "should stop pretending that he is the leader of a democratic country."

"There is a completely different Russia that wants its voice to be heard," he said.

The forum was hastily arranged and held in a Moscow hotel ballroom too small to accommodate all the participants and the journalists wanting to attend, which, predictably, did not include reporters from newspapers or TV networks controlled by the Kremlin.

The meeting brought together the political left and the right, united by circumstance alone, producing some striking incongruities. The head of the Russian Communist Workers Party, Viktor Anpilov, spoke of both democracy and Marxist theory; one of Putin's former prime ministers, Mikhail Kasyanov, all but embraced the leader of the National Bolshevik Party, whose supporters had once thrown eggs at Kasyanov.

The forum touched on such issues as the centralization of government, the nation's heavy dependence on oil and authorities' hostility to even quiet expressions of dissent. Olga Kudrina, 21, spoke to the audience by videotape because she is in hiding after a Moscow court sentenced her in May to 3 1/2 years in jail for hanging a banner on a hotel near Red Square that said, "Putin, Quit Your Job."

What the conference perhaps did best was to confirm that Russia's opposition remains scattered and disorganized.

"Nobody was planning to unite here," Illarionov said. "It's a conference to discuss different views by different people."

Putin's foes seem to have a bleak future, as polls give the president an approval rate of nearly 80 percent, and clear majorities say they favor him serving a third four-year term, despite a constitutional requiriement to step down in 2008.

In an open letter, conference organizers implored the leaders of the G-8's seven other nations to question Putin about "the increasingly autocratic and repressive policies of the Russian government."

Osman Boliyev, head of the human rights group Romashka, arrived at the conference from the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, where he said authorities detained him last year for three months after falsely claiming to find him in possession of an illegal weapon. He urged members of the various opposition parties to unite - lest they perish.

But Ilya Yashin, leader of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party, was skeptical. "I don't think anything exceptional will come next," he said. "If the authorities hadn't been so hysterical about the conference, nobody would have even noticed it."

Yashin was referring to comments by Putin's envoy to the G-8, Igor Shuvalov, who declared that the presence of any foreign officials at the forum would be viewed as an "unfriendly gesture."

Authorities made some unfriendly gestures of their own. Riot police amassed outside the hotel on the opening day. And, according to organizers, many would-be participants from regions outside Moscow were prevented from arriving.

In Yashin's view, the problem with the summit was that it "combined the uncombinable," referring to the polar-opposite ideologies of some of the participants.

"They all have different `Other Russias,'" he said of Kasparov, Anpilov and Eduard Limonov of the National Bolshevik Party. "There are three `Other Russias.'"

There may, in fact, be a fourth: the Russia of the masses, those who are neither involved in politics, nor want to be. "Unfortunately, that is Putin's Russia," Yashin said. "It's the main basis for any authoritarian regime."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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