Poetry replaces placards as Russia's Occupy protesters camp out


MOSCOW LETTER:A SLENDER young man is performing an impassioned rap poem to an applauding crowd. A group engrossed in card games ignore the show, while someone is strumming a folksy tune on the guitar. Welcome to Occupy Abai, Moscow’s street sit-in.

Activists have been camped out on a leafy Moscow boulevard for more than a week, a small but unusual protest in a country where demonstrations must be agreed with the authorities in advance, and the spring evenings are cool and rainy.

Occupy Abai takes its name from the monument to a hitherto little-known Kazakh poet, Abai Kunanbaev, where protesters have gathered, as well as a dose of inspiration from the anti-capitalist movements that have “occupied” public places from Dame Street to Wall Street. But the cause is local.

“The main idea is to change the government and to change the minds of the government,” says Kirill Melamud, a 42-year-old translator, seated on a yoga mat by a fountain.

The camp sprang to life last week after Vladimir Putin was sworn in as Russia’s president for six years. On the eve of his inauguration, more than 400 people were arrested as peaceful demonstrations against his return to the presidency ended in violent clashes with police. In the days that followed, images of riot police beating and kicking unarmed protesters went viral on the internet, while people reported being detained simply for wearing white ribbons – the symbol of Russia’s protest movement.

The crackdown prompted a new kind of protest. At Occupy Abai, people do not chant slogans or wave placards; instead they talk politics, play chess and read poems. Numbers wax and wane from a few thousand to a few dozen. Part hipster camp, part open-air literary salon, Occupy Abai has also been an impromptu stage and lecture club.

Volunteers dole out tea and biscuits. A whiteboard advertises lectures: “what to do if you are arrested” is followed by a talk on anti-fascism. A theatre company dropped by on Monday to perform BerlusPutin, an outlandish satire that mocks Vladimir Putin and his friend, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Opposition leaders, trailing TV cameras, give informal press conferences. Kseniya Sobchak, the socialite best known as Russia’s answer to Paris Hilton, visited and tweeted against the authorities’ decision to move the portaloos.

“I came down to socialise and meet people,” Mikhail Volkov, a 33-year-old manager, says. “This is a good idea. People don’t have many other opportunities to express their opinion.”

“I’m very satisfied to see this. Freedom cannot be bought for any money,” Galina Polikova (75) says after unloading bread and sausage from her shopping trolley to help feed hungry participants.

The high point in numbers came last Sunday when an estimated 10,000-15,000 people went on a “test walk” around Moscow that ended near the Occupy Abai camp. The walkers set out to prove that Muscovites can stroll around without being arrested.

“The goal of the test walk is easy to understand – you should be able to walk in your own town without permission,” Alexander Kumarin, a 28-year-old TV producer, said, pushing his toddler daughter in a pink buggy.

The protest movement shows no sign of abating, with a “march of millions” planned for Russia’s national day on June 12th.

The persistence of the Moscow protests presents President Putin with with a dilemma. If he cracks down on the protests, he risks alienating international opinion and driving his opponents to extremes. By allowing the protests to continue, he gives space to the opposition to grow into a viable force to seize power.

This is Vladimir Putin’s difficult choice, Ilya Ponomarev, a member of the Russian Duma and opposition leader, has written. “As we have seen, the authorities are going down the path of confrontation. But nevertheless they keep returning to one big and very important question: to compromise or not.”

Despite the earlier show of force, authorities have allowed the sit-in to continue, although yesterday a Moscow court ordered the police to remove the protesters. A court spokeswoman said it would be carried out “immediately”.

The persistent protests might explain Putin’s surprising decision to skip the G8 summit, which begins on Friday at Camp David, ostensibly so he can organise his cabinet. Putin is sending Dmitry Medvedev, who as prime minister is nominally in charge of organising the government.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank, dismisses the idea that awkward encounters with western leaders deterred Putin from the summit. He points out that fewer people attended the protest in May than an earlier demonstration before the elections. “The [May 6th protest] march had no effect on Putin’s inauguration and was overshadowed on the world scene by the French and Greek elections that same weekend,” Trenin wrote in Foreign Policy.

The protests underscore how Putin has lost the support of the middle class in Moscow, where more than half the population voted against him in March’s election. The test is how long he can rule without the support of the capital.