ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Shut out of elections and barred from television screens, Russia’s tiny band of die-hard Kremlin opponents now believe street protests are the only way to make their voice heard.
Defying a police ban, a coalition of liberal opposition parties will stage on Saturday what they are calling a “March of the Discontented” in Russia’s second city of St Petersburg to protest at the Kremlin’s tightening grip on power.
The coalition accuses President Vladimir Putin of dismantling democracy and dragging Russia back into Soviet-style authoritarianism. But their voice is isolated: most Russians support Putin and the economic boom he has overseen.
“At the end of the day, only mass protests can force this government to listen,” said Garry Kasparov, world chess champion for eight years in a row who retired from competition in 2005 to become an outspoken Putin opponent.
“We need drastic political action to prevent this country from being dragged down,” Kasparov told Reuters in an interview on board a train taking him and about 150 activists with the “Other Russia” coalition from Moscow to St Petersburg.
As the train trundled through the snow-covered landscape, Kasparov and fellow coalition leader Eduard Limonov talked politics in a third-class carriage while their supporters crowded round. Organizers had called it the “Train of Freedom”.
But when the party disembarked at St Petersburg, commuters looked on with silent curiosity and then went on their way.
One taxi driver waiting on the platform dialed a friend on his mobile telephone. “Hey, Andrei. Come quick. Kasparov’s here. You can get his autograph and maybe he’ll teach you how to play chess,” he joked.
Kremlin critics say Putin has excluded them from conventional politics, leaving only pro-Putin parties and opposition groups that avoid direct criticism of the president.
Compliant national television stations do not allow opposition figures like Kasparov on the air. Tough new rules have made it almost impossible for small opposition parties to qualify to run in elections.
Critics allege there is a crackdown on dissent to ensure a smooth handover of power to a favored successor when Putin steps down next year at the end of his second and final term.
The Kremlin promises the 2008 presidential election will be free and fair. It says the real reason groups like “Other Russia” have been sidelined is that few voters are interested in what they offer, an argument supported by opinion polls.
Peaceful protest is the new tactic for “Other Russia”, but even that is not straightforward. St Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko said Saturday’s march was banned because it would paralyze the city.
Police have warned people to stay away. “The police will act within the law but firmly and will prevent any violation of the administrative code,” said a police spokesman.
The protesters, though, are not discouraged. “It will not be dull,” said Kasparov.
“We are on the right side of the law and they (the police) know that. Whether that will stop them from carrying out acts of harassment we do not know. We will find out.”
Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk