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  • Published in Analysis

The struggle between the regime and the opposition in Russia continues. Alastair Stephens explains the latest developments

Predictions of the demise of the opposition following Putin’s election, and inauguration for his third term as president, have been confounded.

This can be seen in the protests by tens of thousands of Russians, out on the streets to demonstrate for a "Russia without Putin".

Of course this isn't the first demonstration since the election. On the day before the inauguration, an occasion which seemed like a cross between the coronation of a Tsar and a Soviet leader’s succession, as Putin was driven through strangely empty streets to a ceremony at the Kremlin in front of the new aristocracy of bureaucrats and oligarchs.

The day before tens of thousands had again swarmed onto the streets - and the police cracked down. However, unlike the ease with which they had swept the immediate post-election demonstrators off the streets, it was no pushover. The result was the worst public disorder seen in the city since the early 1990s.

The new generation of demonstrators who came out on to the streets in December - following the Parliamentary election marred by alleged fraud - is becoming more experienced, more radical and no longer afraid.

The regime knows this and has changed tactics. It has recently changed the law to impose stiff fines on demonstrators who break the law. The provisions are vague, though they give the security forces broad scope for enforcement. Deviating from the agreed (i.e. state imposed) route of a demonstration is now a crime. But what constitutes deviation?

The night before the latest demonstration raids were made on the homes of leading opposition leaders. The home and office of blogger, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny were raided and his computer seized. Why they had to be carried away by sinister looking men in sky masks has not been made clear.

Also arrested was leader of the Left Front, an umbrella for a number of radical new left groups, mainly young in membership: Sergwi Udaltsov. He has been quite publicly arrested and imprisoned on a number of occasions.

Just to make sure that no one could miss the message Xenia Sobchak, a well known TV presenter and socialite and social media celebrity (she has been described as Russia's Paris Hilton) was arrested and her apartment searched. Notably she is also the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, a one time leader of the democracy movement in the 1990s, former mayor of St Petersburg and mentor of one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

She became a supporter of the opposition movement in December. She tweeted about her experience at the hands of the repressive organs of the state that "never did I think that such repression would return to our country." You can't quite imagine Paris Hilton tweeting such sentiments.

The liberal activist Ilya YAshin was also arrested. All were ordered, on pain of re-arrest, to come back for further questioning, at exactly the same time as the planned demonstration. The message was clear, if unsubtle.

In the end three did turn up. Sergei Udaltsov  said that as an organiser of the demo he felt he had to attend. And he did so.

The repression may yet backfire on the government and may even strengthen a protest movement that has only grown with time. The more it cracks down the more it looks like the illegitimate and authoritarian regime that the opposition believe it to be.

The raids looked more like a KGB action from the Soviet era. And one of the trending Russian hashtags on Twitter over the last few days has been “privyet37”  (“hello37”) referring to 1937 the year of the so-called Yezhovshchina, the very height of the Stalin’s Great Terror when tens of thousands were shot or sent to the Gulag labour camps. It seems unlikely the clock can be turned back so easily.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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