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Analysis: Moscow Does Not Believe In Pensioners' Tears

  • Julie Corwin

Demonstrators in St. Petersburg last week Skepticism -- or even cynicism -- has been a common reaction in Russia to the recent Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine, and the pensioners' protests that have shut down streets in dozens of Russian cities over the past month are eliciting much the same reaction -- at least within Russian officialdom.

During the Kyiv protests, many Russian policymakers and pundits voiced the belief that the West, specifically the CIA and/or the Soros Foundation, orchestrated the appearance of thousands of people on the streets of the Ukrainian capital. Now, the pensioners' protests are likewise seen not as a spontaneous expression of dissatisfaction but rather as a series of "provocations" organized by political opportunists.

Talk Of 'Provocateurs'

In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 17 January, acting Moscow Oblast Governor Aleksei Panteleev suggested that provocateurs were behind the recent protests. "Forces -- for whom their main concern is not the protection of their fellow citizens' interests but their own political [public relations] -- often exploit the mood of protestors, or sometimes [their motivation] is even worse: a provocative desire 'to rock the boat' in a city or raion," Panteleev said. He added that he has held meetings with a number of political organizations active in the oblast and that the "extremists" were "warned not to indulge in provocations or they would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law." According to Panteleev, who was filling in for the vacationing Governor Boris Gromov, "[Our] law enforcement organs have videotapes of all those people younger than pension age who are traveling back and forth from city to city, inciting the population to close streets and engage in other violations of the law. They have been detained in accordance with the law." Earlier, Governor Gromov declared that it is not "the pensioners who are guilty, but the provocateurs."

In St. Petersburg, Governor Valentina Matvienko appeared to have been given the same set of talking points. She told reporters on 17 January that "St Petersburg's law and order agencies will take strict measures against people who provoke pensioners to carry out illegal actions," ITAR-TASS reported. "I want to give assurances that no force will be used against people attending rallies," she told reporters. "However, there are those who are making use of this situation to reap false political dividends." According to gazeta.ru on 18 January and "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 January, Matvienko ordered local police to arrest only young people and ignore elderly demonstrators. Representatives of the city prosecutor's office quoted by lenta.ru on 19 January appeared to follow that distinction between youthful organizers and old participants by saying that administrative cases are being brought only "against the organizers of the actions, not the participants, the majority of whom are pensioners."

Police in St. Petersburg detained eight people on 18 January for organizing unsanctioned meetings. In a program aired on 20 January, Maksim Reznik, chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, told RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau that police targeted not only young people but also older citizens, and not only individuals known to have connections with existing political organizations but also people who assumed any kind of organizational role in the protests. For example, the police picked up 67-year-old pensioner Galina Tolmacheva, who was not associated with any political structure but had telephoned some 600 people asking them to participate in an unauthorized protest in front of St. Petersburg's mayoral offices. She has alleged that she was beaten by policemen at the police station until she lost consciousness.

On 19 January, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin jumped on the provocateur-theory bandwagon, telling reporters in Moscow that the protesting pensioners "have organizers, and highly skilled ones at that," ITAR-TASS reported. According to Kudrin, the Communist Party (KPRF) and National Bolshevik Party created schedules for blocking roads that have appeared on the Internet. In Samara, the oblast prosecutor Aleksandr Yefremov claimed that his office had information that the National Bolshevik Party was among the main organizers of rallies in the oblast capital of Samara, Ekho Moskvy reported on 12 January. However, later that day, National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov told the station that this was news to him, although he would be delighted if it turned out to be the case. Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the KPRF's central committee, did take credit for the protests in Samara in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 January. He said the KPRF encouraged hundreds of protestors to block the streets of Samara and that it also played a role in organizing the large protests in Ufa.

Political Opportunity

Despite Kulikov's claims, some news reports suggest that the Communist Party is responding to events rather than leading them. After all, the party did fail last July in its bid to launch a nationwide protest against the social benefits reform. "Moskovskii komsomolets" charged on 18 January that the KPRF Central Committee appears to "have been caught off guard by events." According to the daily, in some regions, pensioners are carrying Communist Party banners but this is thanks only to the initiative of the local KPRF organizers. The daily reported that when Communists from Izhevsk in Udmurtia telephoned the Central Committee with questions regarding organizing a protest in Udmurtia, they received no clear instructions.

Rather than organizing events, the Communist Party might be trying to gain political capital from the protests after the fact. Ekho Moskvy reported from St. Petersburg on 15 January that leaders of the Communist Workers' Party and members of the National Bolshevik Party showed up at the rally that day long after it had already started. In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 18 January, 64-year-old Olga Fedorova, who is facing administrative proceedings regarding her role in Khimki protests held in Moscow Oblast, said that "all the talk about 'young instigators' is rubbish."

Fedorova said she telephoned some of her acquaintances about the 10 January meeting at the Leningrad Highway and didn't expect more than 20 people to be there. According to police records, around 2,000 people took part. When she arrived with a megaphone in hand, people approached her asking if she was in charge; but she arrived after the highway was blocked. The police picked her up the next day in the hallway of her apartment building. She denied having been at the demonstration, but the police told her that they had her image on film. According to the daily, Fedorova supports Viktor Anpilov's Working Russia Party, but her motivation to protest was more personal than political. With a 1,500 ruble ($54) monthly pension, she could no longer afford her daily visits to relatives in the city of Moscow. She commented at the end of her interview with the daily, "It would be strange if people with a 1,500-ruble-a-month pension didn't protest."
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