New tac­tics, tools in Moscow marches

Pro­test­ers use tech, self-or­ga­ni­za­tion to face op­po­si­tion

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Francesca Ebel

MOSCOW — It’s a scene many Mus­covites have grown used to see­ing this sum­mer as a new wave of anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions gripped the Rus­sian cap­i­tal: Two masked, heav­ily clad riot po­lice­men drag away a shriek­ing teenager as the pro­test­ers around them try to free her.

But then the two of­fi­cers abruptly straighten up when she kicks and shouts.

“Well done! That was much bet­ter,” one of them says, pat­ting her shoul­der. “But don’t fight back or they’ll hurt you.”

It was a protest de­fense train­ing session or­ga­nized by a group of civic ac­tivists at a venue named for the Soviet Union’s most fa­mous dis­si­dent, An­drei Sakharov.

About 100 peo­ple had gath­ered for the train­ing, in­clud­ing a dozen or so mem­bers of the grass­roots group Bess­rochka, which emerged last year. Its name can be loosely trans­lated to “Protest With­out End.”

Al­though its mem­ber­ship is still small, the group’s use of dig­i­tal tools, its or­ga­ni­za­tion ef­forts and ed­u­ca­tion of re­cruits mark a shift in civil con­scious­ness pre­vi­ously un­seen in Rus­sia.

The al­most weekly ral­lies in the cap­i­tal have been protest­ing a de­ci­sion by au­thor­i­ties to keep a dozen in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates off Sun­day’s bal­lot for the Moscow city coun­cil. The demon­stra­tions have been marked by an un­usu­ally harsh crack­down by po­lice, with hun­dreds ar­rested.

The Bess­rochka ac­tivists wanted to learn how to be­have dur­ing the protests. Among the lessons were what to do if ar­rested (“Don’t go too weak!”), how to act in the po­lice van (“Don’t give them your pass­port!”), and what to do when de­tained (“Learn your rights and write ev­ery­thing down!”).

One of the ac­tivists at the train­ing session was Bess­rochka’s best-known mem­ber, 17-year-old Olga Misik. She earned a de­gree of fame af­ter a photo widely dis­trib­uted on so­cial me­dia showed her sit­ting cross-legged in front of a line of riot po­lice, read­ing from a copy of the Rus­sian Con­sti­tu­tion.

Misik and her friends spent much of their sum­mer in de­ten­tion, wait­ing at po­lice sta­tions for oth­ers to be re­leased, or plan­ning their next act of civil dis­obe­di­ence.

The lead­er­less, non­vi­o­lent group first emerged a year ago af­ter a hand­ful of ac­tivists re­fused to leave Pushkin Square fol­low­ing protests of an un­pop­u­lar pen­sion re­form plan pro­posed un­der Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

“Our mem­bers have very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal opin­ions,” said Ar­tyom Abramov, 31, and an orig­i­nal mem­ber. “We are dif­fer­ent peo­ple with a com­mon prob­lem: We want Vladimir Putin to re­sign and we want new faces in gov­ern­ment.”

The group has grown into a part-dig­i­tal, part-di­rect ac­tion ini­tia­tive with 50 to 100 ac­tive mem­bers, and sev­eral thou­sand sub­scribers on so­cial me­dia. Ev­ery week, ac­tivists or­ga­nize pick­ets and low-key demon­stra­tions on is­sues rang­ing from the en­vi­ron­ment to the re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Its core be­lief is that con­stant, peace­ful street ac­tion is the only way to ini­ti­ate change in Rus­sia.

It has seen its mem­ber­ship rise, with more young peo­ple ea­ger to join its meet­ings and street ac­tions.

“A new gen­er­a­tion has ap­peared that sees what is hap­pen­ing and has much less to lose,” says Emil Yunusov, 19, adding that older Rus­sians are more con­stricted by fam­ily wor­ries and work.

Po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor An­drei Pert­sev echoed this be­lief.

“Em­ployed peo­ple are not able to protest con­stantly,” he said.

Yunusov joined Bess­rochka be­cause he pre­ferred the group’s grass­roots con­cept, rather than hav­ing a cen­tral­ized move­ment headed by fig­ures like Alexei Navalny, Rus­sia’s best-known op­po­si­tion leader and anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paigner, or Lyubov Sobol, a young ac­tivist who emerged dur­ing this sum­mer’s protests.

“Peo­ple them­selves should self-or­ga­nize, with­out the or­ders of Navalny or Sobol. This is what develops civil so­ci­ety,” Yunusov said.

New tech­nol­ogy has en­abled groups like Bess­rochka to co­or­di­nate their ac­tions more ef­fec­tively. To join Bess­rochka, its web­site in­structs users to click a “protest nav­i­ga­tor” on the en­crypted mes­sag­ing app Tele­gram. That di­rects re­cruits to a hub of chats and au­to­mated bots that stream­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Tele­gram was of­fi­cially banned in Rus­sia af­ter creators re­fused to hand over its en­cryp­tion keys to the au­thor­i­ties last year, and it has be­come some­thing of a re­sis­tance sym­bol among the coun­try’s in­ter­net users.

Afanasiy Afanasiyev, 20, who helped build the group’s dig­i­tal net­works, says their tech tools range from bots that lo­cate and even iden­tify the po­lice dur­ing protests to ser­vices pro­vid­ing le­gal as­sis­tance to de­tainees.

But Bess­rochka’s off­line tac­tics are more hap­haz­ard. When its bot in­structed a re­porter how to meet with the group’s ac­tivists in a Moscow park, the lo­ca­tion was un­clear, and they had not been told about the in­ter­view, and were un­fa­mil­iar with the bot’s in­struc­tions.

While seen only as a mar­ginal group, Bess­rochka says it is un­der con­stant ha­rass­ment from law en­force­ment and se­cu­rity ser­vices, re­veal­ing the Krem­lin’s jit­ters about any anti-gov­ern­ment ac­tiv­ity.

One of the agen­cies keep­ing tabs on the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion is Rus­sia’s shad­owy Anti-Ex­trem­ism Cen­ter. Known as “Cen­ter E,” it’s a unit of the In­te­rior Min­istry and was formed in 2008 to fight ter­ror­ist and ex­trem­ist groups.

Prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion ac­tivists say Cen­ter E has openly ha­rassed them since the antigov­ern­ment protests of 2011, reg­u­larly mon­i­tor­ing them and try­ing to stop their ac­tiv­i­ties.

Cen­ter E is re­garded by some as a po­lit­i­cal po­lice force, with its op­er­a­tives of­ten seen at ral­lies in civil­ian clothes, shoot­ing video of ac­tivists or telling riot po­lice whom to ar­rest. Bess­rochka ac­tivists say they know Cen­ter E per­son­nel by name.

While the op­po­si­tion is har­ness­ing its dig­i­tal tools, au­thor­i­ties are try­ing to get the up­per hand.

Gre­gory As­molov, a fel­low at King’s Col­lege Lon­don’s Rus­sia In­sti­tute, wrote re­cently that sur­veil­lance is “one of the most promis­ing (tech­no­log­i­cal) in­no­va­tion ar­eas” for the gov­ern­ment. At two ma­jor protests this sum­mer, in­ter­net con­nec­tion was blocked in cen­tral Moscow for hours. Au­thor­i­ties also use fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware to iden­tify ac­tivists. They are known to mon­i­tor the op­po­si­tion’s pub­lic chats and Tele­gram chan­nels, as well as phys­i­cally in­fil­trat­ing ac­tivist net­works.

Mem­bers of Bess­rochka say they are tak­ing pre­cau­tions. Abramov steers clear of au­tho­rized ral­lies where he says there is a higher risk of ar­rest by Cen­ter E of­fi­cers. More broadly, ac­tivists avoid any di­rect con­fronta­tion with the po­lice at ral­lies and they try to main­tain anonymity on the in­ter­net.

GE­ORGE KOVALYOV/BESSRO4KA-TELE­GRAM VIA AP

Bess­rochka, loosely trans­lated from Rus­sian as “protest with­out end,” is a lead­er­less, non­vi­o­lent group.

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