Kasparov on Voronezh: “If this is a democracy, let us march”

We present the exclusive personal recounting of Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov on the May 29 March of Dissent that took place in the Russian city of Voronezh in the southwest. Kommersant has a small photo gallery so you can experience the mood, if not the “atmosphere of OMON” in the air.

I must say that the Putin regime is becoming more creative and efficient in countering March of Dissent activities now. Especially in the regions, where they have much tighter control of the airwaves and all the media. They are concentrating on not letting us get out the news of the Marches at all now. In Voronezh this is what they focused on. A car bringing stickers and pamphlets from a printer in a nearby town was stopped and the materials confiscated. The local authorities were very active in ripping down our posters. For the June 9 March in St. Petersburg, we have already found it impossible to print our newspaper. All 12 printing houses in Moscow have refused and there are similar problems in St. Petersburg as well. In Voronezh, FSB officers visited the homes of organizers with threats and even went to the homes of their parents to make threats. The Kremlin has learned to attack the infrastructure of free speech instead of attacking the protesters after we have mobilized.

This does not mean they failed to have the usual overwhelming security presence in Voronezh. First they refused to permit the rally in the central square, Lenin Square. In fact, just the day before the rally they started construction in the square, putting in a small garden! Meanwhile, two pro-Kremlin youth groups, Nashi and the Young Guard, held rallies on the same day at the same time at two plazas near the center. They assigned our event to a site in the suburbs, near the river, about three kilometers away and with no public transportation access. In 35 C (95 F) degree weather this is no small thing. It was clear that the bulk of our supporters, many of whom are aging members of Voronezh’s industrial past, wouldn’t be able to make it.

But they didn’t take any chances. We counted around 900 officers from outside the district and at least 1500 in local forces. (They remove the license plates from the vehicles from outside the region so it’s easy enough to count.) They locked down the entire city center. The next stage of their plan was to isolate me from the main group of marchers. After I walked into the street with a group of journalists, it was met by a group of OMON that pushed us toward the square on the riverbank. They covered three sides so I could only move in one direction. I had no chance to join the main group of around 400 that was moving in parallel three streets away. The police kept pushing them around and the group slowly dispersed against the tide of security forces.

When I arrived at the square it was fully surrounded by around 500 police. Of course the national TV channels were there with cameras ready to show I was “alone,” that “no one was marching with Kasparov.” Perhaps I should start including my personal police escort in the number of marchers! Even top Nashi guy Vasily Yakimenko was there from Moscow, with the usual Nashi street theater of silly insults. They escalated things this time by waving knives at our marchers and throwing fireworks under cars so the state media could say “the Dissenters are burning cars!” No, our record of non-violence is still perfect despite the countless provocations of the Kremlin’s thugs.

So you can say this March wasn’t a success compared to the others, but you cannot blame the local people, who are under such tremendous pressure. The journalists with us, from France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark, were amazed by the sight of so many troops. Riot police [OMON] in full riot gear as if prepared for a war. It’s clear that the Putin regime is going everything possible to crack down hard all over the country so we cannot build any momentum.

It is again time to ask, what are they so scared of? Why is the Kremlin so afraid of seeing Russians in the streets of our own country, marching peacefully? If this is really a democracy, as Putin insists, where are our rights? If Putin is so popular, why won’t he allow a few people to dissent against his regime, as our constitution guarantees us the right to do? They are so paranoid and dictatorial they won’t allow even the slightest degree of real opposition. I say again, if this is a democracy, let us march.

Another leader of Other Russia, Eduard Limonov, could not attend the rally in Voronezh because he was called to court on exactly May 29 regarding his May 15 arrest. The terrifying “synergy” of the security forces, the judicial system, and the will of the Kremlin is again demonstrated in ways large and small.