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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Russian opposition under pressure
By Steven Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

A policeman arrests a protester in Nizhny Novgorod on 24 March 2007
Police dispersed protesters in Nizhny Novgorod at the weekend
It is an important year in Russian politics, with the country gearing up for crucial national elections.

Regional parliamentary elections - dominated by pro-Kremlin parties - have already taken place.

In December, the country elects a new parliament - the State Duma. And in March next year, there will be a vote for a new president.

One of the emerging trends is an apparently growing intolerance of opposition - in its widest definition.

'Soviet-style elections'

First Russia's chief electoral officer, Alexander Veshnyakov, was ousted.

Over recent months, the authorities' response to unauthorised demonstrations by opposition groups has become noticeably more violent

An otherwise loyal servant of the Kremlin, he had spoken out about what he viewed as unfair advantages enjoyed by the main political party, United Russia.

Last year, he surprised many observers by warning of the danger of "Soviet-style elections".

Then, the Russian Supreme Court shut down the liberal Republican Party.

The authorities said it had failed to achieve the minimum membership required for official registration.

The party itself insisted it was being targeted for political reasons, and pledged to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Protest silenced

This weekend, two events reflecting the polarisation of Russian political life took place.

Activists of the pro-Kremlin Nashi (Our People) movement march in front of President Putin's poster in Moscow on 25 March 2007
A big pro-Putin rally was held in central Moscow on Sunday

More than 15,000 supporters of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Our People) met on Sunday to celebrate seven years of Vladimir Putin's presidency.

Denouncing the former prime minister and now opposition leader, Mikhail Kasyanov, as a "traitor", members read out patriotic speeches and poems.

A day earlier, the authorities in Russia's fourth city, Nizhny Novgorod, were ready and waiting to deal with the participants of the latest "march of those who disagree".

These demonstrations, which bring together a motley array of opposition activists, have now been organised in a number of cities.

In Russia, demonstrations have to be authorised by local authorities before they can go ahead. Without such authorisation, the organisers and demonstrators are knowingly breaking the law.

However, opposition groups insist they are denied permission to demonstrate as a matter of routine, even when they pledge to maintain safety and order.

Increasingly, the authorities act to prevent would-be participants from getting to where they intend to demonstrate. Roadblocks and passport checks are often used.

Over recent months, the authorities' response to unauthorised demonstrations by opposition groups has become noticeably more violent.

Footage of riot police beating demonstrators in Russia draws little criticism from the West, where many governments appear to have given up trying to influence Moscow.

Powerful elite

Yet even without heavy-handed action from the authorities, the liberal opposition would be marginalised.

Its ideas are associated in the minds of many Russians with the suffering of the 1990s.

There is little willingness to listen to a pro-Western agenda when many mainstream politicians increasingly play the nationalist card.

So is the authorities' response a sign of growing nervousness?

Russian electoral politics is scarcely centred on discussion of issues, platforms, competing policies or ideas. Increasingly, to question the status quo is to be branded unpatriotic or "oppositional".

Yet a lot is at stake in the forthcoming elections. They matter precisely because they will determine where power should reside.

In modern-day Russia, "power" extends into something far beyond a seat in parliament or government. It encompasses money, property, media and industrial ownership.

Some analysts describe the clan, caste or class that now rules and owns Russia as a new oligarchy.

Whichever term best fits, it certainly does not want to see elections undermine its position, and appears to be acting to shore itself up well in advance.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Russian police use force to break up the protest



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