Tough Fines Don't Dissuade Protestors In Moscow

Tuesday saw major protests in Moscow — despite tough new laws targeting demonstrators — and raids on the homes and offices of opposition leaders. Melissa Block speaks with BBC Moscow correspondent Damien McGuinness, about political expression and repression in Russia.

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Braving a new threat of massive fines, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Moscow today, chanting that the party of President Vladimir Putin is the party of crooks and thieves. The opposition protests came on Russia Day, a holiday to mark Russia's national sovereignty, established in 1990.

The BBC's Damien McGuinness was out in the driving rain among the protestors earlier today, then came back inside to tell us about it.

DAMIEN MCGUINESS: There was a large stage at one end of the avenue. And on this stage, opposition leaders gave speeches. There was music. And it was quite a festive atmosphere. But what was interesting about it was it was such an eclectic mix of people. You had everything really from quite extreme nationalists to communists - who mourned the loss of the USSR - to gay rights activists, human rights activists, West-leaning liberals - a bit of everything.

DAMIEN MCGUINNESS: And this, in a way, is part of the problem that the opposition movement has. It caters to lots of people, but it doesn't have a coherent message. It is all about intense dislike of Vladimir Putin as a president, but they haven't got any alternative to offer, which is why it's still only a minority of Russians who are involved in this and the vast majority would certainly support Mr. Putin in government because they see him as the provider of jobs and stability.

BLOCK: Just before these demonstrations today, a number of opposition activists were called in for questioning by authorities. Some had their homes and offices raided, lots of stuff carted away. What's the reaction been to that crackdown?

MCGUINNESS: Well, the reaction is one of horror. A lot of opposition movement followers say that this is equivalent to 1930s Stalinist repression, but what we are seeing is - it's a decision by the authorities to say, until now, we have tolerated this. Until now, the Kremlin clearly thought the opposition movement would simply fizzle out. It hasn't done. And now they look ready to clamp down and they're doing this not only by raiding the homes of opposition leaders and calling them in for questioning, but also by introducing a new law just a few days ago which introduces incredibly heavy fines on anyone who's engaged in an unsanctioned rally and the new laws are quite vague.

Even if you take part in a rally which has been permitted by the authorities, there's a danger that you do something wrong within that rally, stray off the side streets or you step on the grass or you damage something. Well, you could also get fined $10,000.

BLOCK: Now, a month or so ago, the protests against President Putin grew violent. That didn't happen today.

MCGUINNESS: Yes, that's right. And I think a lot of people have learned from what happened on May 6th. The last round of protests was the day before Mr. Putin's inauguration as president. Riot police stepped in, blocked off access for some of the protesters. Clashes ensued and hundreds of people were detained, dozens of protesters beaten.

Today, what we saw is that the members of the march were very sedate, were very careful to stick to the rules, but also, the police were very restrained and the riot police were there, but they were around the corner, effectively, from the main avenue where the rally was taking place.

BLOCK: Where do you see this opposition movement going? You describe it as pretty diffuse today, a motley crew. Do you see them galvanizing and being able to stand up against the repressive tactics that Putin has been putting into place?

MCGUINNESS: Yeah. It's hard to say, Melissa, really. There is a theory that the quite harsh clamp-down can galvanize the opposition. On the other hand, there is also a theory that it will scare off people who have only recently joined the protest movement - so middle class, white collar workers. So we'll have to wait and see if this tactic works.

BLOCK: Well, Damien McGuinness, thank you for talking with us.

MCGUINNESS: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Damien McGuinness is in Moscow for the BBC.

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