Beating Down Democracy; with His Latest Bloody Crackdown, Vladimir Putin Takes a Step Futher toward Outright Dictatorship
Matthews, Owen, Nemtsova, Anna, Newsweek International
Byline: Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova
Last week Vladimir Putin and his guest Jean-Claude Van Damme spent an afternoon watching a kickboxing tournament in St. Petersburg. Between bouts, the Russian president excused himself to receive updates from his Interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, on a no less violent event across town. There, 8,000 of Putin's security forces, in newly issued black visors and riot gear, were busy breaking the heads of some 2,000 protesters marching near the city center. By the end of the day, 400 opposition protesters were in jail; more than 40 were hospitalized. It was the fourth such march in a month that police goons had ruthlessly crushed on the Kremlin's orders.
Is Russia moving toward dictatorship? It certainly looked that way last week after the latest violence against peaceful demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg. After years of slowly tightening state control over the media and squeezing political opposition, Putin has taken a sharp lurch into something beyond mere authoritarianism. "This is a turning point," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining anti-Putin Duma deputies. "Everybody who had doubts before can see now the true face of their leader."
If so, it's not a pretty sight. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in November, Putin's ideologues have set out to eliminate all real independent parties and replace them with fake "opposition" groups that operate with official sanction. The Kremlin calls this "managed democracy." In fact, it's an eerily familiar borrowing from the darkest days of the Soviet empire. In place of real opposition, Putin has created Potemkin parties--just as in the old East Germany, where he once worked as a KGB officer. One is Fair Russia, a pseudo left-wing party designed to take votes from the rapidly dwindling Communists. Another is Civil Power, a so-called liberal party. Meanwhile, United Russia, the "party of power," dominates the Duma and counts most governors and bureaucrats as members. Aspiring government officials are required to join the party or face damaging their careers. The three parties differ on policy--but all are loyal to Putin.
The few independent parties left outside this neat system are feeling the heat. In Moscow last week, a large rally by the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi (Ours) went smoothly ahead, unbothered by police. By contrast, a much smaller march organized by A Different Russia, a loose coalition of some of the country's last remaining bona fide opposition groups, was targeted for a crack-down. Police summarily arrested anyone deemed "suspicious," dragging dozens into vans before they could even join the rally. One of its leaders, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, was bundled into a police bus along with dozens of others, including NEWSWEEK Russia reporter Aidar Buribayev, who now faces charges of "participating in an unsanctioned march." In St. Petersburg, a police baton broke former city Duma deputy Sergei Gulayev's hand in five places. …