“Several thousand people demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday in the biggest protest action so far this fall,” AFP reports:
On a gray, overcast afternoon, protesters marched along Moscow’s central Boulevard Ring road carrying photographs of political prisoners, including business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the band Pussy Riot.
This month marks 10 years of imprisonment for Khodorkovsky, a onetime oil baron who was the richest man in Russia. Two young women from Pussy Riot, a politically charged punk-rock group, were imprisoned last year. They have at least one thing in common: They challenged Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Our task today is to mobilize enough people to compel the Kremlin to release the innocent victims of political repression from prisons,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny told the crowd.
The popular and charismatic anti-corruption crusader himself narrowly escaped a five-year prison term following his conviction in July for embezzlement of $500,000 from an obscure provincial timber company. Navalny was released on appeal, allowing him to run for mayor of Moscow in September…..Navalny’s release may also have been a sign that with the approach of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi in February, the Kremlin is prepared to make some concessions to its opposition and civil society groups.
It would take longer to change the system than many had thought, after tens of thousands took to the streets in December 2011, Navalny said.
“Back then everyone thought that Putin’s regime wouldn’t last longer than 1 1/2 years,” he said. “But the truth is that we need to prepare for a longer, more exhausting and more intellectual struggle.”
Khodorkovsky’s arrest ten years ago changed the relationship between business and politics in Russia, writes analyst Victor Davidoff, noting that Yukos was a vital source of funding for philanthropic projects, civil society groups and Putin’s critics:
Yukos openly funded oppositional parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Since then, business executives who dare to finance the political campaigns of people and parties out of favor with the Kremlin soon feel the full weight of state pressure. This usually begins with financial audits and often ends with criminal charges and the destruction of their businesses.
Activists are hoping that the Kremlin will issue an amnesty for political prisoners in advance of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
“We have a big chance to achieve this amnesty,” said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and former deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government,. “Putin is afraid that leaders of Western countries will not attend his [Games]. Athletes may come but not Western leaders. So now is the best time for us to push toward our goal.”
In a disturbing imitation of Soviet practices, Robert Amsterdam writes, one of the Bolotnaya Square protesters, Mikhail Kosenko, was recently sentenced by a court to be committed against his will for punitive psychiatric care, with the clear message being sent to any other young people in Russia feeling rebellious: dissent is “crazy.”
Former Soviet dissident Pavel Litvinov is also concerned that ominously familiar practices are evident in the arrest of Greenpeace activists, including his son, engaged in a peaceful protest.
“I know only too well what a prison term in Russia means. I was arrested for participating in 1968 in a demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,” he writes for The Washington Post:
Lev Kopelev, Dima’s grandfather on his mother’s side, a Soviet writer, spent eight years in Soviet prison camps because he protested the looting and raping of the German population by Soviet officers and soldiers during World War II, when he fought the Nazi army.
Dima’s grandfather was arrested under Joseph Stalin, and I, Dima’s father, was arrested under Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, but Dima has been arrested under Russian President Vladimir Putin — a former member of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Is it not the time to break the cycle?
Litvinov is a member of the board of the Andrey Sakharov Foundation.