Thuggish response to Moscow protesters speaks to brittle govt

There is no justification for the police brutality on display in Moscow either this or last Saturday.

Both were unauthorised protests, yes. Neither were riots.

Russian protesters do not tear up the pavements. They do not charge police or set cars on fire.

They just turn up – these past few weeks to demand free and fair election, which even at the most local of levels – the Moscow city assembly – they are being denied.

Turning up is brave in itself. First there is the overwhelming likelihood you’ll be detained.

The riot police don’t care who you are – if you’re part of the protest or just happen to be passing by.

They don’t care if you’re a teenager in flip flops or a frail 65-year-old. I saw both hauled into police vans, seemingly at random.

And then there’s the beating. There’s a clip circulating on twitter of two men on the ground, howling in pain as a baton-happy policeman thrashes them on the legs again and again.

Another of a cyclist, trapped beneath his bike as a swarm of riot police bash away at him.

The teen beside me on a scooter tries to make his way through a crowd of cameras only for police to swoop down on him. Officers seem pleased they have someone to arrest who was not a journalist.

Finally, for those 600 plus arrested on Saturday – and of course, for the near 1,400 arrested last week, there is the possibility of a fine and even jail time.

Last Tuesday authorities launched a criminal inquiry into mass riots and armed resistance against government officials.

Already five people have been charged. After the Bolotnaya protests in 2011 and 2012, dozens were sent to jail for terms of up to four years.

That is a clear and definitive deterrent, even if the charge of violence against government officials given what I saw today is clearly ludicrous.

This is why protests in Moscow are tame in comparison to what you might see elsewhere. Moscow does not burn.

There is no need for tear gas or water cannons because the protesters are not out to make trouble.

They’re simply turning up, on Moscow’s boulevard ring on a Saturday, to say they have the measure of their politicians and they know when they’re being conned.

These protests are still small – less than one sixth of the size of Bolotnaya at its peak.

But seven years later and as the president’s ratings dip, the Kremlin is more sensitive to the protest mood.

No confident administration would feel the need to trample on the rights of its citizens, there for all to see, on the streets of central Moscow.

The Kremlin may hope the rest of the country focuses on efforts to fight wildfires in Siberia, and state TV will take care of that for them.

But this thuggish response speaks to a brittleness at the heart of government. It will be interesting to see where the cracks begin to appear.

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