Russia Cracks Down on G-8 Protestors
Published on Friday, June 18, 2006 by the Toronto Star / Canada
Russia Cracks Down on G-8 Protestors
Kremlin accused of `repression, intimidation'
Canadian envoy attends opposition conference
by Michael Mainville
ST. PETERSBURG - Vladimir Soloveichik wasn't home when the police showed up to question him about plans for opposition protests during this weekend's Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg. So they questioned his 67-year-old mother instead.

"They started asking her questions like, had she ever been a member of a political organization, did she own car, had she ever used the Internet, had she ever been to extremist websites," he said. "It was against the law and completely ridiculous. She is a sick old woman who hasn't left the apartment in years."

Soloveichik, a key organizer of planned protests at the summit, said it's a measure of how far Russian authorities are willing to go to suppress opposition to the gathering.

"The Russian authorities are terrified they will look bad if anything happens while the leaders of the G-8 are in St. Petersburg," he said.

Russia is for the first time this year chairing the G-8, an informal club of powerful nations that also includes Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other leaders will meet in St. Petersburg this weekend to discuss a range of issues, such as energy security, education and the global fight against infectious diseases.

Russia's chairmanship of the G-8 has come under fire from critics who accuse the Kremlin of reversing democratic reforms and stifling dissent since President Vladimir Putin came to power six years ago.

If further proof of Russia's authoritarian tendencies was needed, opposition leaders said, events leading up to the summit have provided it.

"Systematic repression against the Russian opposition has become in fact the prelude to the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg — that is to say, part of its agenda," said a statement released Wednesday by participants at the "Other Russia" conference, a meeting of prominent opposition figures held in Moscow this week. "This campaign of repression is ... sanctioned by the political leadership of our country."

According to participants, more than 60 activists were prevented from attending the conference and some were beaten or detained.

Busloads of riot police surrounded the hotel where the meeting was being held and, on Tuesday, plainclothes agents seized four participants from the hotel lobby before taking them away in an unmarked car.

The meeting was attended by western diplomats, including Canadian Ambassador Christopher Westdal, in defiance of a Kremlin warning that foreign participation would be deemed "an unfriendly gesture."

Westdal said his presence was not meant to be confrontational, but reflected Canada's interest in furthering democracy in Russia.

Putin bristled at criticism Wednesday during an NBC television interview, likening Dick Cheney's harsh criticisms of anti-democratic moves in Russia, made during the U.S. vice-president's May visit to Lithuania, to "an unsuccessful hunting shot."

The crack — a reference to Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion in February — came the same day Putin told a CTV interviewer that "if officials of other countries support this undertaking, it simply means they are trying to influence the internal political arrangement of Russia a little bit," according to a Kremlin transcript.

Chess champion turned opposition politician Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and ex-Kremlin aide Andrei Illarionov were at the meeting, during which speakers decried increasing Kremlin control over the media, civil society, private business, regional governments and the courts.

Kasparov said the key goals of the conference were to find common ground among Russia's fractious opposition movements and to push for Western leaders to "stop pretending that Putin is a leader of a democratic country."

"If a political leader boasts about promoting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot sell democracy in Russia down the river in exchange for some other political gains," Kasparov said.

In St. Petersburg, police have questioned more than 700 opposition figures in the run-up to the summit and warned that unsanctioned demonstrations will not be tolerated, Soloveichik said.

"There has been an intense campaign of intimidation," said Soloveichik, the co-ordinator of St. Petersburg's left-wing Civic Initiative Movement and one of the organizers of the Russian Social Forum, a protest event timed to coincide with the summit that is expected to draw more than 1,500 people.

Anti-globalization protests have become a fixture at G-8 summits and have sometimes ended in clashes, the most violent of which occurred during the 2001 G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy, when a young protestor was killed and dozens injured. Activists are planning to hold a demonstration on the streets of St. Petersburg tomorrow, as G-8 leaders arrive for the first day of the summit.

But it remains unclear how much support they will be able to muster and authorities have yet to grant them permission for the protest.

"We're hoping to gather as many as 3,000 people, but I don't think it will be on the scale of previous G-8 protests," Soloveichik said.

A key problem for organizers has been the inability of foreign anti-globalization activists to get to St. Petersburg.

The expense of travelling to Russia and the country's strict visa regime has deterred all but a handful of activists, said Guy Taylor of U.K.-based Globalize Resistance, a key organizer of demonstrations at last year's G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.

A number of activists, including a group of 11 Scottish anti-poverty campaigners who have cycled to every G-8 summit since 1998, have been refused entry to Russia.

"It's a shame people aren't going to be able to attend. It's all part of wider trend of G-8 meetings becoming less and less accessible, by disappearing up mountains, for example," Taylor said, in a reference to the 2002 G-8 summit, held in Kananaskis, Alta.

"I think it's a sign of weakness that the G-8 has to run away from activists with the freedom to protest."

Michael Mainville is the Star's freelance correspondent in Russia; with files from Associated Press.

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