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Europe

Russia's opposition prepares new protests

Russia is heading for a tumultuous autumn. The opposition is organizing fresh protests against Putin. And the courts are handing out one harsh verdict after another.

As soon as the summer break ends, Russia's opposition hopes to get as many protesters back on the streets as possible. Three months after the last big demonstration, the next march is scheduled for September 15. The organizers call it a "march of millions."

So far it's not quite millions but rather tens of thousands who since December 2011 regularly take to the streets to protest for democracy and greater participation; and against the policies of President Vladimir Putin. The protests have largely been limited to the capital Moscow, but now the opposition hopes to make itself visible across the country.

"You can't get toothpaste back into the tube," Moscow opposition politician Denis Bilunov told DW. The number of opposition supporters is growing, he explains. "The people have realized that they make a difference."

Medvedev's carrot

Denis Bilunov (Foto: DW/Per Henriksen)

Russians have realized that they make a difference, says Bilunov

Bilunov is an experienced politician and has been a member of the opposition for 10 years. Together with former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, the 43-year-old is active in the Solidarnost movement. A few months ago, Bilunov started his own political party, the Party of December 5.

"The name is a direct reference to the date when the first big protest took place," says Bilunov. Back then, people took to the streets to protest against vote rigging, manipulation and the victory of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia. The demonstrations soon became a protest movement the like of which Russia hadn't seen in some 20 years.

Bilunov and his colleagues profit from the liberal political reforms that then-president Dmitry Medvedev initiated last Winter in response to the protests.

"Surely you have to demand more, but it would not be wise, to not make use of what you have already achieved," Bilunov says in reference to the eased laws that make it easier to form political parties. Many opposition groups that beforehand did not qualify for a party now do.

Putin's stick

But that's no reason to lean back and relax, according to Bilunov and his fellow activists. Since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, it looks as if he could pull back some of the more liberal reforms of his predecessor. During the summer, the government party United Russia pushed some controversial laws through parliament. One of those bills limited the freedom of assembly. Protesters are no longer allowed to march masked, concealing their identity. Violations against the rule are being heavily fined. Observers see this as an attempt to stifle the protest movement.

Russia's judiciary is also getting tough. In August, a Moscow court sentenced three members of the punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison. The young women had staged a protest performance in Moscow's largest church to demonstrate against Putin returning to the presidency. The trial and the harsh verdict drew widespread international criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised concerns that Russian civil society would be "further intimidated by this verdict."

Intimidation

In the western-Russian city of Smolensk, another opposition figure was hit by a harsh verdict. Putin critic Taisiya Osipova was sentenced to eight years in prison. The member of the opposition party The Other Russia was accused of dealing drugs. The court handed out a sentence twice as long as the prosecution had demanded. Human Rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Helsinki Group told DW those were "absurd accusations." Also the chairman of the Russian Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, criticized the verdict.

Taisiya Osipova (Foto: Mitya Aleshkovskiy/ AP/ dapd)

Osipova has been sentenced to eight years in prison

Irina Jarovaja of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, however, saw the sentence fit. "Justifying drug trafficking with political motives" was "insane," she told Russian news agency Interfax.

And there's yet another trial with a political background coming up. Several participants from a May 6 anti-Putin demonstration are being held in custody after there were clashes between the police and the protesters. Yet they are not high-profile opposition activists. Alexeyeva says this is no coincidence: "Those are simple protesters. Most of them went for the first time to a demonstration." The trial is to intimidate other Russians to not join in with any future protests, she believes.

Opposition calls for snap elections

The opposition hopes that the trials will actually have the opposite effect and fire up the anger against the Kremlin. Whether it's the activists from Pussy Riot or the opposition politician Osipova, the organizers of the "march of millions" on September 15 are demanding the release of all political prisoners.

And there's another issue that the demonstration will call for and that's been unchanged for the last six months: New parliamentary and presidential elections. The reason is obvious, says opposition politician Bilunov: "There were irregularities during the last vote" and the outcome of the past elections was "not legitimate."

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