Anti-Government Protesters Take To The Streets In Scores Of Russian Cities

Jun 12, 2017
Originally published on June 12, 2017 1:48 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the Russian capital, and what a day it's been.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Russian).

GREENE: There were anti-government protests across the country. You're hearing at the end there, Putin thief. And at the beginning, it was, one two, three, Putin go away, which I suppose rhymes in Russian but does not rhyme so well in English.

We have been covering these protests all morning. The leader of these protests that took place across the country - we should say opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been arrested here in Moscow along with more than a hundred other people so far.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wow. So we'll get to what's been happening in those protests. But this is an interesting moment for you, right, David? You covered Russia for NPR. You lived in Moscow. How are you absorbing this?

GREENE: Yeah, I lived in this - the very building where we're broadcasting. It's an interesting moment I think, Rachel, because, you know, Vladimir Putin has been making so much news for his influence abroad, including in the United States and the Russian meddling in the election. But today his grip on power is facing a test from within. And I think we're just going to have to see where this goes.

And so I'm in our Moscow bureau, and if you take a 15-minute walk from right here, you get to Pushkin Square, and it's this huge square with a number of subway stations, a statue of Pushkin. And it's just up a large boulevard from the Kremlin. That's where a lot of the protests have been happening in Moscow.

And our colleague Mary Louise Kelly, who is on this trip with us - she has been out there for several hours now in those protests. And I think we have her on the line. Mary Louise, you there?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, David. Hey, Rachel. Yes, I am here, still on the corner of Pushkin Square.

GREENE: Well there you - so what's happening? What's the latest there?

KELLY: So these protests have changed so rapidly hour by hour. Let me describe to you the absolutely surreal scene that I am standing in the middle of right now. Fifty feet to my right is a wall of police. And I don't mean police the way they look on the streets in D.C. or LA. They are in full body armor, helmets, batons, the batons notably back on their belts now, not out in their hands as they have been most of today. So that's on one side. We're talking maybe a hundred or so that I can see just right - 50 feet away from me.

Not 10 feet to my left is a table of little girls working on an arts and crafts project. They are taking hay and making it into dolls. And that is - that kind of sums up the surreal aspect of these protests which have been aggressive. The protesters are now completely cleared, at least from this corner of Pushkin Square where I am.

Barricades are still up, but the city's come back to life. It's a national holiday here. And these little girls are part of the Russia Day festivities that a lot of the people who are out here who got caught up in these protests actually came for. And they - these are clearly families determined to carry on. And so we're watching these two utterly different events unfold...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Next to each other...

GREENE: Totally.

KELLY: ...All mixed up in each other.

MARTIN: How are authorities, Mary Louise - how are they deciding who to detain?

KELLY: Well, it started with - they were detaining the protesters who were chanting, who were holding up any kind of sign. And they would haul those away, and then people would regroup. The protesters would regroup, and then another group would start chanting.

Eventually, about an hour ago, the security forces moved in and just started clearing everybody it was line after line. About a dozen security officers would go in, all holding each other's shoulders, linking arms. They would target a particular protester, either lead that person away or, if they needed, to knock them down to the ground and then pick them up and carry them away in these vans that are pulling protesters out.

Where I stand now, an hour ago, there were several hundred protesters. There is no one here but families out with strollers, enjoying Russia Day. It's like it never happened.

MARTIN: Wow, two different, varied perspectives - one group that says this - what's happening in Russia is not normal, the other group apparently saying with their actions, everything is exactly normal. So I want to get some perspective now on how these protests came to be. David, Alex Navalny (ph) is the opposition leader who was urging people to take to the streets. Remind us who he is, how he was able to galvanize such support today.

GREENE: Yeah, Alexei Navalny - he's a young, 41-year-old lawyer, and he really burst onto the stage several years ago. Social media has been so important for him. He runs this anti-corruption campaign. I mean that is officially his platform and priority, but he's increasingly being seen as the only person - if there is someone out there who could challenge Vladimir Putin, it could be Navalny.

He wants to run for president next year against Vladimir Putin, but the reality in this country is Putin basically decides who can run and who can't run. Navalny had these protests back in March. They threw him in prison. They let him out 15 days ago, which led many to say, like, what is Putin doing? Does he want this guy to be out there with a campaign? And now he's detained again today. So he's - he has a growing influence and a growing following. How big - I think it's yet to be seen.

MARTIN: Lastly, I'll just put this question to both of you briefly. So here you are in Russia. This is a moment after these allegations of election meddling in the U.S. election. What have each of you learned about Putin's Russia in 2017 - Mary Louise, briefly.

KELLY: I think just standing here on Pushkin Square where I'm speaking to you now from, what you see is a Russia that - where Putin faces clearly mounting challenges from the economy, from political opposition, other forces but where he remains firmly in control. They shut these protests down very fast. They were dramatic protests on the streets, but there was never a moment where it did not look like the military and police were in control.

MARTIN: And David, some final thoughts from you.

GREENE: I think as much as people are calling for change, I'm struck by what hasn't changed, Rachel. I mean I saw protests that were much bigger than this back in 2011. So many countries - you think about the Arab Spring - have gone through upheaval. Russia is very much the same. And to grow an opposition movement in Putin's Russia is incredibly, incredibly difficult.

MARTIN: My co-host David Greene reporting from Russia along with our colleague Mary Louise Kelly, NPR's national security correspondent. Thank you to both of you.

KELLY: You're welcome.

GREENE: Thanks, Rachel.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we say opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released 15 days ago. In fact, he was released after 15 days in prison, not 15 days ago.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.