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WSJ: Dissent in Russia

From today’s WSJ:

Dissent in Russia Wall Street Journal editorial, April 16, 2007 Peaceful protest is not a right accorded the subjects of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The violent clashes between riot police and pro-democracy demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend are business as usual for the master of the Kremlin. [Garry Kasparov] Several hundred protestors were arrested, including Garry Kasparov, who was taken into custody Saturday on his way to the square where the Moscow rally was held. Mr. Kasparov, a former world chess champion, has won new prominence in recent years as Russia’s leading democratic activist. He is the moral force behind an umbrella group of opposition groups known as the Other Russia, which organized the rallies. Here is Mr. Kasparov’s account of his arrest: “We were walking down the middle of the pedestrian walkway, not holding any flags or even shouting,” he said in a statement. “They cut us off on both sides and when we stepped into a cafe the police pursued us and took us out. I say ‘police,’ but they failed to identify themselves or to give any reason for our arrest.” After 10 hours in jail, he was fined and released. Mr. Kasparov was lucky. Many other protestors were beaten. Mr. Kasparov also serves as a contributing editor of this newspaper and has been writing on Russian democracy for us since 1990. In his most recent article, published on March 30, he predicted the current violence. Mr. Putin, he wrote, would crack down “on any sign of public of political opposition, no matter how small, using overwhelming force.” Mr. Putin cannot risk a Russian version of Ukraine’s grassroots Orange Revolution. In advance of the weekend rallies, it didn’t help the protestors’ peaceful cause that exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky gave an interview to a British newspaper saying he was plotting the violent overthrow of the Putin government and was already bankrolling Kremlin insiders to plot a coup. “It isn’t possible to change this regime through democratic means,” he told the Guardian. “There can be no change without force, pressure.” Mr. Kasparov says, “The Other Russia has nothing to do with Boris Berezovsky.” In seeking a peaceful alternative, Mr. Kasparov and his coalition have their work cut out. The Other Russia’s coalition is small, diverse — its members include nationalists and Bolsheviks as well as well-known democrats — and, it is fair to say, shaky. While it is united in wanting to oust Mr. Putin, it lacks a common vision for a post-Putin Russia. The coalition’s immediate aims are to broaden its support and agree on a candidate for next March’s presidential election. The constitution prohibits Mr. Putin from running for a third term, though there is widespread speculation he will find a way to do so. With little access to the state-controlled media, rallies such as this weekend’s are the only way for the Other Russia to draw attention to its democratic aims. For now, the outside world is the only opposition voice heard loudly in the Kremlin — and so long as Mr. Putin can trumpet Russia’s membership among the G-8 democratic powers, it will be hard for Washington or other Western democracies to get his attention. Mr. Putin’s seven years in power have been marked by ever-greater state control of the media, and by a steady erosion in the rule of law and democracy. Parliamentary elections will be held later this year and the presidential vote is scheduled for next March. These campaigns are just getting under way, and the question is whether the weekend violence is a harbinger of bloodier days to come.