• 2007-04-18

cartoon by J. Cheksters

It's official: Russia's slide away from democracy was completed last weekend with the indiscriminate detainments and beatings of people who had gathered to protest the political climate in the country. There's no reason any longer for Angela Merkel, Jose Manuel Barroso, George W. Bush or any other Western leader to continue harboring illusions that Vladimir Putin is an individual to be trusted in creating a Russia with which the West can integrate. By trampling all over the elementary freedom of assembly, the Russian president has shown he is a hopeless tyrant.

Otherwise, the mass detainments and senseless beatings, as well as the disproportionate show of force (9,000 policemen employed to "mollify" half as many protesters), highlight two important aspects of contemporary Russia: rampant Kremlin paranoia, and a pitiful opposition.

Ever since the multi-colored revolutions swept across the former Soviet Union, all on the power of popular discontent, the Kremlin hasn't stopped looking over its shoulder. Putin, a native of St. Petersburg, and his hard-line team are determined not to let anything similar occur next year during the presidential election, which by all accounts will be a rigged vote. The Kremlin sees mini-protests like those over the weekend as dress rehearsals and is acting accordingly.
Second, the latest protests themselves were dreary, lackluster, and if the hard-liners would leave them alone the true impotence of Russia's so-called opposition would be apparent. Only a few thousand showed up. Many were radical nationalists with whom no commonsensical politician would want to be associated. And a majority of Russians, feeling comfortable in their new-found middle class status, simply don't care. For them, all such demonstrations are dangerous public relations games for power-hungry outcasts. They feel little sympathy with those who were beaten or detained.

It is extremely important to note that Russia's weekend beatings are an omen for Estonia, which is gathering to relocate a war grave and, possibly, a monument to Red Army soldiers, both of which are in downtown Tallinn. Time has shown that Moscow loves nothing more than to use the Baltics as its whipping boy in international institutions 's e.g., the Council of Europe 's for alleged human rights abuses. After the shameful performance in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Kremlin will want to deflect criticism, and there's no better way than to dispatch a brigade of angry Russian protesters to Tonismagi, altar of the Bronze Soldier monument. They will provoke a confrontation and, while the cameras are rolling, the world will watch as Estonian policemen drag off hapless protesters.

They are already gearing up for it. The pro-Kremlin club of adolescent neophytes 's Nashi 's has already announced it would send a group to stand guard over the Bronze Soldier, and on the evening after the crackdown in St. Petersburg a popular talk show featured a (largely one-sided) debate on Estonia's intention to move the monument. The Russian propaganda machine is beginning to work overtime. Emotions are guaranteed to spill over, and so they might into the Baltics. Estonia be warned.