From Russia, a Tale of Two Demonstrations

MOSCOW — Two very different demonstrations took place in Moscow Sunday. One mourned the death of a journalist; the other celebrated the birth of a president.

On the one-year anniversary of the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, over 2,000 police officers monitored a gathering of several hundred mourners and political activists in Moscow’s Novopushkin Square.

The journalist was shot and killed in her apartment building last year in what was widely believed to be an attack stemming from her investigative work of Russia’s ongoing conflict in Chechnya.

The Politkovskaya rally took place under a light rain and featured eulogies for the fallen journalist and critiques of the Putin administration. The crowd alternated between mourning for the loss of Politkovskaya and occasional chants calling for new leadership in the Kremlin.

One chant of “Russia without Putin” was quickly ended by Alexey Simonov, leader of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, who quieted the crowd from the stage by answering, “Unfortunately, today is a day without Politkovskaya.”

Mikhail Kasyanov, a once-loyal prime minister to Putin before his dismissal in 2004, used the occasion to draw attention to politics ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December. Before the demonstration, Kasyanov launched a series of radio advertisements on the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) personally calling for Muscovites to demonstrate and demand change.

During his speech, Kasyanov preached the need for a constitutional government and political reform, saying “The parliament doesn’t function without instructions, daily instructions, from the Kremlin.”

Boris Nemtsov, a leader in the opposition group the Union of Right Forces, spoke to the crowd and brought up old memories when he referred to a 2000 interview Putin gave on American television.

Nemtsov said, “I remember very well Putin’s smile on the Larry King show when he answered the question about what happened with the submarine, the Kursk. He said smiling, ‘It sank.’ We’ll never forget that.”

The demonstration drew some parallels to an April political rally on the same square in which local police and paramilitary officers were accused of using excessive force to break up the demonstration, organized by an opposition alliance called “The Other Russia.”

This time, access to the square was tightly controlled by police with metal detectors and bag searches. But the rally took a civil tone.

Several leaders from the previous rally, including chess grandmaster and presidential candidate Garry Kasparov, chose not to participate in the Politkovskaya demonstration. Kasparov chose instead to solemnly acknowledge her legacy by attending an outdoor photo exhibition focusing on Politkovskaya and the conflict in Chechnya.

Tanya Lokshina from DEMOS Center for Information and Research, a human rights group, praised the exhibition. “This is probably the best way to remember that Anna Politkovskaya is no longer (with us), but her work continues to live,” he said.

Meanwhile, Across Town . . .

In another part of town, near the Hotel Ukrainia, thousands of members of the political youth group “Nashi” (Ours) gathered to celebrate the 55th birthday of Vladimir Putin. The Nashi youth group dogmatically supports Kremlin policy but has repeatedly denied it receives any direct funding from the Kremlin.

Led by chants from party leadership, the march proceeded along the Moscow river flanked by buses used to transport participants to and from the march. Youths waved Russian and party flags and wore t-shirts featuring Putin’s face and the phrase “Our choice!”

Seen often amongst the Russian state flags was the Nashi emblem: an alarm clock. The emblem symbolizes Nashi’s belief that Russia needs to be alarmed by outside threats, including those stemming from Western influence.

Both demonstrations took place amid the backdrop of speculation regarding Putin’s future. The recent appointment of new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and Putin’s announcement at the United Russia convention that he could possibly stay on as the country’s prime minister after his presidential term ends in 2008 has analysts and politicians scrutinizing the president’s every move for clues about the future.

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