The demonstrations were the latest in a series organized by the Strategy 31 rights group which has organized rallies on the last day of each month with 31 days, highlighting Article 31 of Russia’s constitution which guarantees freedom of assembly.
“The United States is troubled by reports of that dozens of people were detained in Moscow and other cities around Russia,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“Current actions run counter to President Medvedev’s recent comments about the need to widen the political space, and threaten those championing the aspirations that are common to all people,” he said.
The Obama administration has been criticized for subordinating human rights and democracy to security interests since the “reset” of US-Russia relations. But others note that the US has managed to pursue a dual track strategy, engaging the Kremlin on vital strategic issues, including arms control and frustrating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while reserving the right to criticize the regime’s democratic regression and engage Russian civil society groups.
The protest in Moscow was led Ludmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, ……
and attended by a smattering of young people along with numerous middle-aged and elderly people, some making their way painfully by cane. Police officers surrounded them – 2,000 had been deployed – and looked intimidating, many in bulletproof vests and helmets, standing shoulder to shoulder and two deep around much of the square.
“This is our only way to tell the authorities what we think,” said Alexeyeva.
Many of the pro-democracy activists said they were inspired by the protests in Egypt and called for an end to premier Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.
Before the protests even began, police arrested 11 activists with the Other Russia opposition group in a weekend raid, claiming that the detentions were part of an investigation into recent ultra- nationalist riots.
Their justification convinced few observers.
“Authorities arrested citizens seeking to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and some who were not even participating in the demonstration,” said the NSC’s Vietor. “We urge the Russian government to act to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly for all citizens.”
The Strategy 31 protests took place against the backdrop of growing speculation that the recent terrorist attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport is aggravating tension between prime minister Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev. But whereas the former enjoys the allegiance of the powerful siloviki clans, Medvedev has failed to build a power base or constituency to support his declared strategy of modernization.
“Perhaps the biggest weakness in Putin’s Russia is the lack of a vigorous civil society to represent citizens’ interests,” says Lucian Kim, as a result of which “the government is too unresponsive”:
For most of the past 10 years, Russia’s government has avoided accountability by marginalizing the opposition, bringing the national TV broadcasters under its control and squeezing independent civic groups. Past terrorist attacks have been largely erased from public memory, as have uncomfortable questions over how they could have happened in the first place.
“In the aftermath of the Domodedovo attack, Medvedev appealed to civil society to aid in the fight against terrorism,” Kim writes. “It was unclear whom he had in mind.”
But, other observers suggest, the Strategy 31 campaign indicates that civil society and pro-democracy groups remain resilient and may even be encouraging a new civic activism that has spread beyond the major urban dissident clusters of Moscow and St. Petersburg to Russia’s provinces.
The Moscow Helsinki Group is a long-time grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy