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Russia: A Winter of Discontent

police arrest protesters
Watch Video

Length: 4:37

Watch footage of the police crackdown on a pro-democracy march in
St. Petersburg.

Editor's Note: FRONTLINE/World producer and reporter Victoria Gamburg ("Moscow's Sex and the City") is covering the elections in Russia. Her story will appear in our television broadcast on February 26, 2008, just before the March presidential vote. This is the second dispatch she has filed from the campaign front.

It's election season in Russia and the Kremlin is doing everything it can to ensure that Vladimir Putin retains power, including monopolizing the airwaves and limiting the ability of the opposition to protest.

The European Union said the parliamentary elections in Russia on December 2 were "not fair and failed to meet...Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections," but the Kremlin didn't seem to mind.

Putin's United Russia party won an overwhelming majority, over 64 percent of the popular vote, though that's well below Putin's 80 percent personal popularity rating. The Communists came in second, with almost 12 percent. Two loyal pro-Kremlin parties, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (which is neither liberal nor democratic), and the center-left A Just Russia, received 16 percent combined.

The two liberal pro-democracy parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces -- received a mere 2 percent of the popular vote, falling below the 7 percent needed to win a seat in parliament. This means that the Communists will be the Kremlin's only true opposition in parliament.

Just moments after the march began, a group of young men appeared in the crowd holding up the black flag of the banned National Bolshevik party and began shouting, "Russia without Putin!"

On the eve of the parliamentary elections, the usually fractious democratic opposition joined forces to lead large street protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

During the Moscow protest, chess star Garry Kasparov, the leader and presidential candidate of Other Russia, was tackled to the ground and assaulted by riot police, then arrested and sentenced to five days in jail. It was a blunt warning from the Kremlin to Kasparov and other vocal critics in the opposition: We don't care that the world is watching. Next time, we can make things much worse for you.

Kasparov's jail sentence and the roundup of hundreds of demonstrators in Moscow did not deter their allies in St. Petersburg from holding their march the next day. It was organized by St. Petersburg's branch of the Yabloko party. Once Russia's most important liberal party, Yabloko has seen its political influence diminish greatly during Putin's eight-year reign. Its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, still refuses to join forces with Kasparov's coalition. But on this day, there was a united front of all the parties who fear Putin's increasing monopoly on power.

I was in St. Petersburg that morning as hundreds of riot police took to the streets. Just moments after the march began, a group of young men appeared in the crowd holding up the black flag of the banned National Bolshevik party and began shouting, "Russia without Putin!" Protesters tried to stop the men from displaying the banned flag, but the police took this provocation as their cue to move in. They charged at the protesters and arrested everyone in their path. Not even parliamentary deputies were spared arrest.

The few protesters who got away joined a second group of demonstrators who had gathered on Palace Square, St. Petersburg's most famous public space. This rally was also disbanded by police and hundreds more protesters were arrested, including two prominent Union of Right Forces politicians. Most of the marchers were released the same day.

A few days after the protest, I spoke with Olga Kurnosova, Other Russia's St. Petersburg representative and one of the organizers arrested that day. (Kurnosova is featured in the accompanying video clip). I asked if she fears something more serious could happen to her if she continues to lead protests against the Kremlin. Kurnosova has a young daughter and says that as a mother, of course, she is afraid, but she says she has no choice if she wants the situation in the country to change. "The worse they react, the quicker this will all end," she argued. "I have never seen them react so strongly before. They are afraid."

Further Reading

Read Gamburg's first Dispatch on the election campaign,
Russia: Searching for the Opposition.

REACTIONS

new york, ny
This was an interesting video, but I wish there was more context here instead of the usual slam on Putin. I'd like to know more about why Putin is so powerful today in Russia and why he's able to shut down peaceful protests like this. I think that this type of report really shows nothing new that hasn't been reported by the rest of the press. What I'd like to know is bigger picture and not so sensational as a protest being shut down.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
We think a protest like this being shut down is well worth reporting. But for more context, and a longer story, we suggest you watch our upcoming report, "Putin's Plan," which will air as part of our Feb.... FRONTLINE/World broadcast on PBS. Of course, as always, after the TV broadcast, the streaming video of the full story will appear on our web site for anyone to see worldwide.

(anonymous)
To "Mr. from Montreal" [see below] Russian situation is an ill, believe me. It's Russia's damnation because we have very high oil prices, we have very high profit but still old Russians live in the alms-houses. There are many paupers in Russia. Where did the money go? Do you know?You said: "Russia has never seen better days"? Ok! But you can see only good side of Russian reality...There isn't a dictatorship regime in Russia. But there is autocraty in my country. We have money but we have no liberties.They say Putin was able to cast a spell on the public. He is former KGB agent. And he works like KGB man.

Christopher Barnett - San Francisco, CA
This is great reporting and very important but for some reason is not getting national media attention....why is that?
Thank you

montreal, canada
It is unfortunate that in a democratic system, a good man like Putin can only serve two terms. If I was a voter and a third term was an option, he would have had my vote. Russia has never seen better days

jim bowers - Friedens, pa
Another fascist on the march. Did you believe they only came from America and Germany?

Martin Duffy - Albany, NY
Why wasn't this on the US national news? Why in our idle reveries do we enjoy endless hours of coverage and commentary about a passing parade of grocery line epic stories about the death of Anna Nicole Simpson , O J Simpson in a Vegas hotel room "sting operation", Paris Hilton's brief encounter in jail, and on and on when a real tragedy is unfolding in Russia where brave citizens who yearn for democracy, and thought they had achieved it suddenly find themselves being swatted down like flies by a personal friend of our president without so much as a passing glance by our media?