Signs of dissent in Russia continues to come from the most unexpected quarters.
On January 31, police detained political activist Roman Dobrokhotov after he staged a silent protest in front of the Russian government headquarters in Moscow.
Dobrokhotov, the leader of the opposition group We, stood with several colleagues in front of the White House with their mouths taped shut and holding blank sheets of paper. He was charged with "provocative behavior" and -- despite the tape -- "public cursing."
He was one of dozens of opposition figures detained
in the Russian capital following a series of protests dubbed the "Day of Dissent" by organizers.
But when Dobrokhotov's case was brought before Judge Aleksei Bondarev, something remarkable happened. Here's how the weekly "Novaya gazeta
" described the proceedings:
First of all, the session on February 3 lasted until late in the evening, and, as a rule, judges tend not stand on ceremony with political detainees. Second, the judge listened attentively to defense witnesses and said that since the police officers were an interested party, their testimony should not be trusted implicitly (ordinarily, the texts of judicial rulings repeat the police protocols almost word for word). Third, the judge entered into the record a videotape on which it is visible that the opposition figure had conducted himself decently, and recognized his right to free expression as protected by the European Convention. In the end, Aleksei Bondarev set aside the ruling of the Justice of the Peace and freed Roman Dobrokhotov in the courtroom. 'I do not know what will come of all this,' Bondarev said.
Somewhere, I hope the former judge Sergei Pashin
-- who set the standard for judicial independence and fairness in Russian courts in the 1990s before being kicked off the bench -- is smiling.
And it isn't just in the courtroom where cracks in Russia's authoritarian structures are beginning to become manifest.
At a press conference on Monday, Igor Yurgens director of the Institute of Contemporary Development and a aide to Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev, said the following, according to a report in "The New York Times
The social contract consisted of limiting of civil rights in exchange for economic well-being. At the current moment, economic well-being is shrinking. Correspondingly, civil rights should expand. It’s just simple logic.
Yurgens was speaking after his institute issued a report concluding, contrary to Kremlin claims, that the economic crisis in Russia "cannot be dismissed as an infection contracted from the West." The report said that "fundamental flaws in the structure of the country's economy and its underdeveloped financial system" as the cause of what it described as a "full-scale market crisis."
This blog has paid a lot of attention to machinations at the very top of Russia's power elite. We've been speculating about whether Medvedev's recent overtures
-- like his meeting with "Novaya gazeta" editor Dmitry Muratov or his moves to scuttle a law broadening the definition of treason and espionage -- are signs of a thaw. We've been debating until we're blue in the face whether a split is emerging
between Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler.
But we've also noticed another pattern that is hard to ignore.
The protests over a hike in auto-import tariffs
brought people who would never have considered protesting before out on to the streets.
Anna Bukovskaya, an activist from the Kremlin youth group "Nashi," came forward to blow the whistle
on how the authorities have been infiltrating and spying on opposition groups.
Military officers are openly opposing
a proposed reform of the armed forces.
These, even when considered together with Judge Bondarev's ruling and Igor Yurgens's frank statements, don't necessarily constitute a trend. At least not yet.
But they do seem to suggest that Russians from various walks of life are beginning to lose their fear of dissent.
-- Brian Whitmore