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Analysis: Organizing Spontaneity

Vladimir Putin (file photo) If the "Kursk" submarine disaster of August 2000 caused a short-term dip in President Vladimir Putin's popularity, it's not difficult to imagine that the trio of terrorists acts in the past three weeks might also erode -- if only temporarily -- the 70 percent-plus approval ratings of Russia's commander in chief. After all, Putin came to power promising to "rub out" Chechen terrorists in the outhouse. Now, he -- rather than they -- appears to be on the run.

Although Putin's popularity may suffer, it's not clear that any other politician or party will benefit. The response to the events from Russia's weakened political parties has largely been confined to the issuing of public statements. It was the Kremlin and regional authorities, after all, and not the political opposition, who organized the nationwide "protest" against terrorism held on 7 September. Writing in "Izvestiya" the same day, commentator Aleksandr Arkhangelskii noted that while formally the trade unions organized the gathering of more than 100,000 people in central Moscow to express support of the people of Beslan, it was "understood" that they were simply stand-ins for the authorities.
"Yes, the authorities would not allow meetings with antigovernment slogans...[but] what if [we] were simply silent, standing shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, demonstrating to ourselves and to our hated enemy and that [we] are not afraid?"

Similarly in other cities, regional youth organizations were nominally listed as the organizers for protests, when in fact it was regional officials who were arranging the events, frequently by resorting to "traditional organizational methods," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 8 September. And, if "Vedomosti's" reporting on 8 September is correct, deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov deserves the real credit, since he reportedly orchestrated the series of antiterrorist rallies on the president's orders. Surkov is widely credited for overseeing Unified Russia's victory in the December 2003 State Duma election.

Writing in "Izvestiya," Arkhangelskii asked, "Why does our opposition prefer to tearfully complain about the Kremlin, but does not summon the people even when they would follow?" He continued, "Yes, the authorities would not allow meetings with antigovernment slogans...[but] what if [we] were simply silent, standing shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, demonstrating to ourselves and to our hated enemy and that [we] are not afraid? And, afterwards having revived their trust and rallied potential voters, the opposition could organize an antigovernment meeting under less dramatic circumstances."

Arkhangelskii answers his own question by pointing to the personal shortcomings of individual liberal politicians. While those may be contributing factors, another possibility is that the law on public demonstrations and street rallies is already having its intended effect. According to the new law, relevant authorities must be notified no more than 15 days and no less than 10 days before an event, which means that the organizers of the 7 September rally against terrorism should have applied for permission sometime between 22 and 27 August -- before the seizure of the school in Beslan even began, "Kommersant-Daily" noted on 8 September. However, mayoral-administration officials denied that any regulations had been violated in order for the event to be held, and Moscow trade-union leader Mikhail Nagaitsev told the daily that the meeting was originally going to be held just to commemorate the 25 August collision of the two airplanes that resulted in 90 deaths. However, the Club for Heroes of the Soviet Union, which was another one of the formal organizers of the event, told the daily that it learned of the meeting only on 6 September.

The political opposition not only lacks the assurance that legal officials will look the other way when it comes to completing the necessary paperwork on time to hold a demonstration, they also lack the "administrative resources" necessary to ensure a good turnout. According to on 7 September, railway workers, medical-establishment employees, and students at higher educational institutions were all "tasked" with attending the 7 September protest against terror. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 8 September, the police helpfully rearranged protesters so that persons bearing the same signs wouldn't be standing next to one another.

The irony is that all the arm-twisting and heavy-handed organizing may not have been completely necessary. "Vedomosti" reported that some people came to the rally in Moscow simply because they couldn't stay home and watch TV. And "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that many residents of St. Petersburg of their own accord burned candles in their windows in memory of the victims of Beslan. At the demonstration, everyone cried, even men, especially when two large screens showed fresh news from Beslan.

Pollsters will soon measure how and whether Putin's popularity has been affected by Beslan. A longer-lasting effect of the recent wave of terrorism than a movement up or down in Putin's approval rating may be a further expansion of the state on the pretext of preventing new terrorist acts. Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, a recent convert to the cause of the Unified Russia party, suggested at a press conference in Yekaterinburg on 6 September that like Americans, Russians are ready to give up part of their rights for greater safety, "Novyi region" reported on 6 September. Rossel said: "We are ready to limit our rights in the name of the security of our children. Today we say: less political intrigues, more security. Society is ready to grant the president additional powers in the struggle against terrorism." And with additional powers and an even stronger state, President Putin may find public opinion less and less relevant.

For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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