Starting with an AP report of civil unrest and peaceful protests, and Russian riot police reacting by beating and kicking protesters and journalists, and ending with no mention of or comment from either Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, or Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, the story of what looks like Russia’s biggest problem, freedom, is being minimized while Russia’s Navy in the Western hemisphere takes center stage.
Riot police clubbed, kicked and detained dozens of people who gathered at a holiday celebration in Russia’s Far East Sunday as hundreds protested across the country over a hike in car import tariffs.
Rising unemployment and a sharp slide in the ruble have driven discontent across Russia and the Kremlin fears the deteriorating economic situation could lead to public unrest.
With domestic car production suffering, the government this month announced higher import tariffs on automobiles, prompting several protests. The demonstrations have been most vehement in Vladivostok, Russia’s largest Pacific port, where nearly all private cars are imported from Japan.
Hundreds rallied in the city Saturday for the second weekend in a row and demonstrators hoped to rally again on Sunday.
But authorities refused to authorize the demonstration and hundreds of riot police blocked off the city square where it was planned.
Soon after, some 500 people gathered around a traditional Russian New Year’s tree on Vladivostok’s main square, singing songs and dancing. It was unclear how many were thwarted demonstrators, and there were no placards or signs of political protest, but riot police demanded that people disperse.
Putin’s idea of progress is to return to the 20th century Soviet Union. Raising protectionist tariffs, squelching public dissent, silencing political opponents, and controlling the press, hallmarks of Khrushchev and Gorbachev, is the direction that the ‘new’ Russia is headed.
An Associated Press reporter watched as several people who resisted were beaten with truncheons, thrown to the ground and kicked. Several parents were detained as their children watched.
“Riot police encircled the group … even those just passing by, and they started taking people away without any sort of comment,” said Olga Nikolaevna, a 62-year-old pensioner who witnessed the incident.
An AP reporter saw at least 10 journalists detained by police, who demanded several turn over videotapes and photo memory chips and wrecked a Japanese TV crew’s video camera. Some journalists were beaten and kicked, including an AP photographer. National TV channels, which are state-controlled, ignored the demonstrations.
The Kremlin has sidelined political opponents and put tight controls over civil society and the media, rolling back many post-Soviet freedoms.
For Putin, this is a case of history repeating itself. He seems hell-bent on resisting freedom, like Gorbachev did, instead of embracing it. Boris Yeltsin embraced it, and won. Putin and his puppet president fear freedom and the power and prosperity that freedom and a free-market economy can deliver to the Russian people. Rather than being a champion of freedom, they are proving to be an enemy of it.