Marching in Samara on May 18

The city government of Samara has agreed to allow our March of Dissent to take place in the city on Friday, May 18th. The route has been altered but it will still take place in the city center. Other Russia leaders Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov will be present for the march. Russian and European Union leaders will be meeting in the city at the time. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will attend. The approval came only after the German government expressed to the Kremlin that the demonstrations should be allowed. That produced this quip on a Russian website, “the Russian government only understands our constitution in the German translation.”

However, the government allowing the march does not mean allowing the marchers to attend it or the citizens of Samara to learn about it. The arrests, detentions, confiscations, and harassment continue unabated. Yesterday, the editor of the Samara edition of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, his daughter Anastasia, and several other journalists were detained. Anyone producing or distributing our materials is vulnerable to harassment. Anastasia Kurt-Adzhiyev was distributing flyers promoting the rally at the time she was detained. She and rally organizer Yuri Chervinchuk were picked up, according to police, because they might have had grenades in their bags. And jet fighters in their pockets, no doubt. We reiterate that every one of our Marches of Dissent have been entirely peaceful on the part of the marchers. All the violence has been on the police side of the lines.

Computers at Novaya Gazeta have been confiscated to prevent the release of the publication, which dared to mention that an opposition rally was to take place in the city. (The official pretext was a search for pirated software!) Many other activists have been detained. The representatives of Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Foundation human rights group were arrested upon their arrival at the Samara train station, having been advised twice that there would be in trouble if they continued their journey. Another was suddenly called up to the army and taken away. One student activist was expelled from university on the grounds — and so stated — for his participation in Other Russia.To show up in Samara under these circumstances takes tremendous courage. Our activists continue to labor under great pressure and we salute them and thank them. Radio Echo in Samara has helped us a great deal and so far the local AVTO Radio has accepted our commercial. [ Update: AVTO, Radio Echo, and a local TV station have now all refused to run our commercials inviting people to attend the march. A march approved by the city government! ]

The organization Reporters Without Borders released a statement on the situation in Samara. An excerpt:

“We are outraged to see that even important international meetings do not prevent the political authorities from harassing leaders of the Other Russia coalition who are organising a protest march (although it has been authorised) and the journalists who have interviewed them,” the press freedom organisation said. “This is a flagrant violation of human rights and civil liberties, and we urge all human rights activists to be especially vigilant in the coming months, which will be decisive for Russia’s future.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “The record of the last seven years confirms our conviction that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of press freedom. It is our duty to appeal for solidarity with Russian human rights activists and journalists so that they do not feel isolated. Their struggle must find support outside the country, starting with the European Union.”

The toll of the past week in the city of Samara alone is very worrying. Three journalists working for the daily Kommersant and REN-TV were arrested on 10 May while interviewing Mikhail Gagan outside his apartment building. Gagan is one of the organisers of the “Dissenters’ March” which Garry Kasparov’s Other Russia and other anti-Kremlin groups plan to hold in Samara on 18 May as the summit is taking place there.

The Putin goverment must believe the visiting leaders and journalists in Samara are fools. Do they really believe officially permitting the march while jailing and intimidating the marchers will convince them that Russia is a respectful democracy? It’s like trying to paint over a big hole in the wall. The Kremlin wants to be able to say, “Look how few protestors showed up. Everyone here is happy!” But in reality they have already exposed their authoritarian ways. They learned on April 14 and 15 that beating the protestors generated bad publicity, too much of which could lead to a rift with the West and the endangerment of all that looted money they have abroad. So now, with the world watching more closely, they are trying methods that are harder to photograph. It is still nothing more and nothing less than the broad usage of police and other security forces for political repression.