Bolotnaya Eight: Putin is scared of Moscow Maidan

Article published on Feb. 28, 2014
Article published on Feb. 28, 2014

On Monday Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed. An interim government pieced itself together and a new Ukraine began to emerge from the ashes of the Maidan. But as triumphant Ukrainians danced victory jigs in Kiev, rising up from the smouldering barricades like unwieldy phoenixes in their home made armour, 700km away in Moscow, protestors were being bundled into police vans.

As Yanukovych fled in fear, Vladimir Putin put his foot down. On Mon­day the ‘Bolot­naya Eight’ were sen­tenced to a com­bined total of 20 years in prison for par­tic­i­pat­ing in an anti-gov­ern­ment protest on 6 May 2012, the eve of Putin’s third in­au­gu­ra­tion. The charges of vi­o­lence are du­bi­ous and were never proved be­yond the in­con­sis­tent tes­ti­monies of a hand­ful of riot po­lice. One pro­tes­tor, Yaroslav Be­lousov, 22, was sen­tenced to 2 and a half years for throw­ing a lemon, which po­lice re­ported as an ‘uniden­ti­fied hard yel­low ob­ject’ which caused an of­fi­cer ‘ex­cru­ti­at­ing pain’.

But why is the Bolot­naya case so im­por­tant, when so many other Rus­sians have al­ready been im­pris­oned on trumped-up charges? The case has a pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism, since Bolot­naya Square is where the protest move­ment first took off in De­cem­ber 2011.

I was sit­ting in a café with a Russ­ian friend in Moscow on 5 De­cem­ber 2011, the day after the brazenly fraud­u­lent state Duma elec­tions. We dis­cussed how some re­gions had re­ported im­pos­si­ble re­sults of 99.5% sup­port for Putin’s United Rus­sia party. We joked about how pro-gov­ern­ment vot­ers had been bussed from polling sta­tion to polling sta­tion, vot­ing for United Rus­sia over and over again through­out the day, cheer­ful lit­tle carousels of fraud. It wasn’t funny, but the only thing you could do was laugh for we knew noth­ing would change.

But this time was dif­fer­ent

My friend sud­denly lost in­ter­est in me and stared at her phone in dis­be­lief be­fore be­gin­ning to text fu­ri­ously. This cycle was re­peated, her dis­be­lief and her tap­ping in­ten­si­fy­ing each time. Fi­nally she looked up, her face con­torted in a cu­ri­ous cock­tail of dis­be­lief, fear and ex­cite­ment. “They're protest­ing!” she shouted, “Thou­sands of peo­ple are protest­ing at Chistye Prudy! My sis­ter's friend was just ar­rested!”

Win­ter snow was falling out­side. Putin's party had just 'won' an­other re­sound­ing vic­tory. It should have been busi­ness as usual in Rus­sia, but for once civil so­ci­ety was not about to hi­ber­nate. This time was dif­fer­ent.

Five days later on Sat­ur­day 10 De­cem­ber, Bolot­naya Square hosted the biggest street protest Rus­sia had seen in 20 years since the col­lapse of the So­viet Union. 50, 000 peo­ple gath­ered in the snow. Rus­sia was awak­en­ing. It felt like some­thing was hap­pen­ing. “Bolot­naya” be­came syn­ony­mous with free­dom and change. “Bolot­naya” was a magic word.

Fast for­ward two years and things are dif­fer­ent. In­stead of a totem of re­sis­tance and mass sol­i­dar­ity, “Bolot­naya” has be­come syn­ony­mous with a cruel, scripted trial. By mak­ing an ex­am­ple of these young, non-rad­i­cal pro­tes­tors, stu­dents with hopes and dreams for the fu­ture, the gov­ern­ment sought to reap­pro­pri­ate the sym­bol­ism of Bolot­naya Square. The au­thor­i­ties have poi­soned that magic word.

But the gov­ern­ment has gone fur­ther than just neu­tral­is­ing sym­bols. Dur­ing his third term, Putin has rav­aged Rus­sia’s in­cip­i­ent civil so­ci­ety with a blitz of leg­is­la­tion. Fines for par­tic­i­pants of ‘un­sanc­tioned’ protests have in­creased 150-fold to £6000. The legal de­f­i­n­i­tion of trea­son has been ex­panded to in­clude al­most any­one who deals with for­eign­ers. In No­vem­ber 2012 he clob­bered NGOs with the ‘for­eign agents law’.

As the “Bolot­naya Eight” were sen­tenced on Mon­day, pro­tes­tors out­side the court­room chanted “Maidan! Maidan!” in­vok­ing the as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ment of Ukrain­ian pro­tes­tors who had de­posed their Pres­i­dent over the week­end. But as the po­lice rounded up 200 pro­tes­tors and bun­dled them into vans, there was a sense that the Ukrain­ian rev­o­lu­tion would ren­der change all the more un­at­tain­able for the Russ­ian op­po­si­tion. A scared au­to­crat is a cruel au­to­crat and there was no doubt Putin was quak­ing.

Fear is Putin’s dri­ving force

I spoke to Alexis Prokopiev, the Pres­i­dent of Russie Lib­ertés, a Paris-based civil rights or­gan­i­sa­tion that fo­cuses on democ­racy in Rus­sia. He tells me that fear has been Putin’s pri­mary dri­ving force dur­ing his third pres­i­den­tial term. On the eve of his third in­au­gau­ra­tion, “Putin didn’t ex­pect 200, 000 peo­ple to take to the streets,” says Prokopiev, “He was afraid, and that’s why he pur­sued all these laws against lib­erty.”

Prokopiev says this fear was in­ten­si­fied ex­po­nen­tially by events in Ukraine, “Putin knows that his regime is just as cor­rupt and au­thor­i­tar­ian and he is afraid that he’ll end up like Yanukovych. The heavy pun­ish­ments [for the Bolot­naya Eight] are Putin’s way of send­ing a mes­sage to any­body think­ing about tak­ing part in protests.”

Doesn’t all this paint a bleak pic­ture of Rus­sia’s fu­ture? Prokopiev does not think so. “In re­al­ity, pro­tes­tors and civil so­ci­ety in Rus­sia have be­come so used to this type of op­pres­sion, it doesn’t dis­cour­age them from tak­ing civil ac­tions,” he says, “He can’t sup­press Russ­ian civil so­ci­ety be­cause civil so­ci­ety has woken up.” In­deed the en­dur­ing image from Mon­day 24 Feb­ru­ary is not the Bolot­naya Eight being led away in chains and packed off to penal colonies in Siberia. Nei­ther is it the ar­rest of 200 peo­ple out­side the court room, amongst them Alexei Navalny and Pussy Riot Mem­bers Nadezhda Tolokon­nikova and Maria Alyokhina.

No, Mon­day will be re­mem­bered for the day's sec­ond demon­stra­tion, which was led by peo­ple who were ar­rested ear­lier, re­leased in the evening and im­me­di­ately re­turned to the streets to protest. Russ­ian civil so­ci­ety is like a bal­loon- when Putin squeezes one part it bulges out else­where. Every Putin re­pres­sion seems to en­hance Rus­sians’ re­silience, every blow in­creases their courage and bravado. It seems Putin’s fear is not only well-founded - his para­noia is a self-ful­fill­ing proph­esy.