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15 Mar, 2008 19:26

‘Politics of the street’ struggles to be heard

The results of Russia's recent presidential election show that the majority of the population supports the current political course. Nevertheless, there are those who speak out against the authorities. Russia's radical opposition was barred from standing

With mainstream politics dominated by pro-Kremlin parties, there are those who feel that taking to the street is the only way to exert their political will. Opposition leaders say they have to fight for their right to be heard.

Dissenters' Marches bring together an uncomfortable coalition of western-oriented democrats and ultra-nationalist youth movements. They are united not only by their opposition to the current regime, but also a desire to defend their right to protest at all.

‘Other Russia’ leader Garry Kasparov says there is no compromise on their objectives.

“Either we restore democracy, free and fair election and freedom of the press, of association and of protest, or it will be a police state no matter who runs it,” he thinks.
The Movement Against Illegal Immigration’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the BNP in Britain and France's National Front. This group calls for fewer foreign citizens to be allowed to work in Russia and blames them for the low incomes and birthrates of the ethnic Russian population.

Its leaders say their radicalism is unacceptable to the authorities.

Dmitry Kirillov from The Movement Against Illegal Immigration said that the group “has tried to take part in parliamentary politics, but they have been banned from running in elections under formal pretexts”.

“Fighting through democratic means is a thing of the past, as the authorities do not accept the existence of any opposition,” he believes.

These movements have certainty attracted widespread coverage in recent years. But it's unclear whether it is simply due to the media's boredom with bland party politics, or the electorate feels that mainstream parties no longer reflect their interests.

Those in power do not want to give the streets over to the opposition.

Kremlin-funded youth movements often stage demonstrations on the same day as the Dissenters Marches, sometimes explicitly aimed at opposing them.

Yet, Russian political analyst Aleksandr Karpov believes that the warning sign for the government is when ordinary people, and not political activists, take to the streets.

“When you experience from day to day that your attempts to reach the authorities are neglected, when you learn that you cannot defend yourself through legal procedures, then the only way for you to speak out your protests is to go to the streets,” he says.

Indeed, the biggest protests in Putin's presidency were in 2005 when the government changed the Soviet-era benefit system.

For the moment, Russians appear more keen to fight on individual issues than to protest over ideology. Big cities have seen frequent demonstrations against housing fraud, potential construction proposals and new traffic regulations.

As Russia transforms into a rights-based society and its citizens expect more of its government, these may well become more and more frequent.

Many of Russia's protesters are on the margins of political discourse, and their number pales in comparison to the millions who voted for Dmitry Medvedev.

But nevertheless, any government must feel worried if its people express themselves out on the streets instead of through the ballot box.