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Putin an unlikely ally for Russian activists

PM agrees attempts to block street demos in defence of Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right of free assembly, are 'hypocrisy'.

While a row grows over permission for demonstrations, an opposition party supporter is detained at a rally in St Petersburg.
While a row grows over permission for demonstrations, an opposition party supporter is detained at a rally in St Petersburg.

MOSCOW // There are seven months in the Gregorian calendar that consist of 31 days. And on the final day of each of these months, Russia's marginalised political opposition attempts to stage demonstrations in defence of Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right of free assembly. Whenever the organisers of this so-called Strategy-31 campaign apply for permission to rally at Moscow's central Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, however, the answer from city hall is the same: the square is already reserved. Sometimes by pro-Kremlin youth groups, sometimes by a few stunt cyclists performing in front of a handful of onlookers: but always reserved.

Russian authorities, the opposition says, arrange these events as a tactic to suppress public dissent and then unleash truncheon-wielding riot police to detain activists who take to the street anyway - under the pretext that they are participants in an unsanctioned protest. Opposition activists, however, recently received what many saw as a sign of support for their protests from an unexpected voice: Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin, the former Russian president and now prime minister , took the rare step of publicly engaging in a discussion about Russia's political freedoms with a known Kremlin critic - the rock star Yury Shevchuk. At a charity event in St Petersburg on Sunday, Mr Putin sat down with a group of artists, including Shevchuk, who probed the Russian prime minister's thoughts on public protests. The exchange, which was later shown on state-controlled television, became testy at times, with both men interrupting and trying to speak over one another. Mr Putin said demonstrators should not interfere with traffic or otherwise impede city life - a common justification used by authorities to ban opposition protests.

He said, however, that in principle he was in favour of citizens' voicing their opinions publicly. "If I see that people go into the streets not just to talk or promote themselves but to say something important and relevant and draw the government's attention to some problem, there is nothing wrong with that. I will thank them." When Shevchuk complained that "local authorities install amusement rides on main squares when we want to hold our protests", calling the tactic "nothing but hypocrisy", Mr Putin said he agreed.

The comments spawned waves of speculation among Russian bloggers and political junkies about a possible shift in the government's approach to public protests, whose typically undersized crowds are portrayed by pro-Kremlin forces as irrelevant at best and traitorous at worst. The Kremlin and its acolytes have been particularly sensitive about public displays of social discontent since the onset of the global financial crisis almost two years ago.

Mr Putin's words were analysed so energetically in the Russian media and blogosphere that his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave a statement that day to clarify that Mr Putin was not encouraging people to attend the Strategy-31 protests scheduled for the following day. "There are even calls to attend the demonstration because Putin allowed it and no one will be touched," Mr Peskov told Ekho Moskvy radio. "This is untrue. Putin has not granted permission because he cannot grant permission. Local authorities do this. Putin said that everything should be within the limits of the law."

It is unclear to what degree Mr Putin's words might have emboldened his critics. But the unsanctioned Strategy-31 protest on Monday evening on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad turned out to be one of the largest opposition protests in recent months, with at least 500 people showing up. (Organisers put the number at more than 1,000, while Moscow city police estimated 500 protesters.) Riot police detained 150 demonstrators - more than the total amount of participants in typical opposition protests - dragging and carrying many of them into police busses and hauling them off to local precincts.

Alexander Arteymyev, a Moscow journalist who attended as an activist with We, an opposition youth group, said by telephone from hospital yesterday that police had broken his shoulder while pulling him out of a police van and he would be in a sling for three months. Several activists said they would file complaints about police brutality during the detentions. Roman Dobrokhotov, the leader of We, said authorities may have been better off just allowing the protest to go ahead instead of carrying out a heavy-handed clampdown.

"The harsher their methods, the more people who will show up next time," Mr Dobrokhotov said. Across the square from Monday's protest, pro-Kremlin youth groups were conducting a blood drive - an event for which they are regularly granted permission at the site on the last day of every month that ends in 31. At one point, protesters' chants of "Russia Without Putin" and "Nice Work, Shevchuk!" were drowned out by a booming recording of the Russian national anthem emanating from the blood drive.

Amid the protesters, a man held up a piece of paper that read: "Putin Gave Permission." @Email:cschreck@thenational.ae