'Other Russia' Opposes Power Structure

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Riot policemen arrest a protestor in St. Petersburg, Russia. i

Riot policemen arrest a protestor in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 3, 2007. Scuffles broke out as about 5,000 people gathered to demonstrate against President Vladimir Putin's leadership ahead of forthcoming elections. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
Riot policemen arrest a protestor in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Riot policemen arrest a protestor in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 3, 2007. Scuffles broke out as about 5,000 people gathered to demonstrate against President Vladimir Putin's leadership ahead of forthcoming elections.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Kasyanov

Many political observers see former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a leader of the Other Russia coalition, as the opposition's best prospect in presidential elections next year. Gregory Feifer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer, NPR

When thousands of protesters in St. Petersburg staged an unregistered demonstration against the authorities earlier this month, they were met by truncheon-wielding riot police.

Police shocked observers by dispersing the crowds and arresting hundreds of people. Still, the rally's organizers called it a success. They say the event showed that ordinary Russians will now come out onto the street to protest President Vladimir Putin's stifling of dissent.

Chessmaster Garry Kasparov was one of those organizers. He says the protest made an important breakthrough by uniting different age groups and social strata.

"Because [for] first time under Putin's rule, it was not a protest against something concrete — raising pensions, higher prices, whatever. It was a protest against the regime."

Opposition groups say the Kremlin's control over elections and influence over the national media has all but shut them out of politics. In regional elections this month, the main pro-Kremlin United Russia Party came in first in 13 out of 14 provinces.

But Kasparov says that may be about to change. He's the driving force behind a new coalition called Other Russia, which unites starkly disparate groups, from hard-line communists to liberal Westernizers. Kasparov says Other Russia's platform isn't based on a narrow ideology but a common demand for the right to free assembly, free and fair elections and other provisions of the country's democratic constitution.

"It's not just down with Putin," Kasparov says. "It's an attempt to build a structure which could guarantee that ... the most popular party wins. So it's more of restoring the procedures."

The radical National Bolshevik Party is also in the Other Russia coalition. The party's leader, controversial writer Eduard Limonov, says the authorities' violent response to the St. Petersburg demonstration exposed the true nature of Putin's rule.

"The governor of St. Petersburg, she used police violence against youth, the children, the elder people," Limonov says. He calls Putin's regime an "absolute police state."

Other Russia's leaders believe the authorities are worried about what will happen when Putin steps down next March, even though most believe whoever Putin names as his favored successor will almost certainly win next year's election.

Other Russia says it will contest the election. Most believe the most likely candidate for Other Russia in that poll will be another of its leaders, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Kasyanov spent four years in government under Putin but says he split with the government because of Putin's reaction to the Beslan school siege in 2004, which Putin used as justification for abolishing the election of regional governors.

"I was simply shocked by the reaction of the president," Kasyanov says. Instead of some kind of condolences, we've seen that that strategy was used as an excuse to launch another project of squeezing political rights and changing the whole electoral system.

Kasparov concedes that Other Russia has almost no chance of winning the presidency next year. But he says the Kremlin's ruling elite may splinter after Putin steps down, opening the way for an opposition challenge. Other Russia's leaders say their protest in St. Petersburg earlier this month has already encouraged them to press ahead. They've announced there will be another rally, this time right under Putin's nose in Moscow, on April 14.

Profiles: Spotlight on Russian Opposition Leaders

Read profiles of the politicians and human rights activists behind the opposition voices heard in the Resurgence of Russia series.

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