As Vladimir Putin’s armored motorcade traveled the short distance from the Government House to the Kremlin on May 7th, downtown Moscow looked postapocalyptic, like something from a Hollywood movie. The city was deserted: not only the immediate route of the motorcade, but also the neighboring streets, central squares, and nearby metro stations were sealed off to the public. Residents along the route were forbidden to leave their apartments. Some 20,000 police and interior ministry forces occupied Moscow to protect the president-“elect” from his voters.
A day earlier, between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched through Bolshaya Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square to protest the swearing-in of an illegitimate president. As riot police blocked the entrance to the square and to the bridge leading across the Moskva River to the Kremlin, demonstrators attempted a sit-in protest. The authorities responded with full force. After the first round of pepper spray, people began to run. “The gas was used several more times, and, amid the smoke in the sunset, one could see batons descending on the heads of opposition activists,” recalls a reporter for Gazeta.ru. “They were beating people brutally, into blood, smashing their faces on the pavement, dragging them by the hair and by the clothes, regardless of gender or age. Several officers were beating up a middle-aged man. The crowd began to shout: ‘Murderers!’”
The crackdown continued on inauguration day, as hundreds of activists were detained. Jean Jacques, a central Moscow cafe frequented by journalists and opposition figures, was ransacked by riot police: those inside, including opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, were arrested and driven to police stations (Nemtsov was beaten while being detained). Protest organizers Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov received 15-day prison sentences.Young demonstrators were being handed summons for compulsory military service. According to the official figures, some 1,000 people were arrested at anti-Putin protests on Sunday and Monday. Unofficially, 47 demonstrators were injured. This was, however, still not good enough for Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, who suggested that the protestors should have had “their livers spread over the pavement.”
As Muscovites were being hurled into police vans, Vladimir Putin, his right hand on the Constitution, pledged to “respect and protect the rights and freedoms.” The lavish Kremlin ceremony attended by some 3,000 guests, including Putin’s Western errand boys, Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi, marked the start of his “third” (in reality, fourth) presidential term. Few believe he will complete it. The rising discontent of the urban middle classes and the increased repression that will only fuel more protests hardly promise the “stability” trumpeted by Putin in the early years of his rule. For all the Kremlin pageantry, Vladimir Putin’s era is coming to an end. And, judging by the cleared-off streets and the startling military presence, he knows it better than most.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this post inaccurately described an incident from the Sunday rally of police officers beating up a pregnant woman. That description has been removed because the reports it was based on have now been determined to be inaccurate.
Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru