By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — It was, one of the participants remarked, like a bizarre flashback to the early days of the Russian democratic movement in 1988. Opposite the city soviet building, beneath the outstretched arm of the equestrian statue of Moscow founder Yuri Dolgoruky, the same speakers were addressing the crowd.
There was Valeriya Novodvorskaya, jailed so often for dissident activities that she was rumoured to consider prison a vindication; Boris Kagarlitsky, the brilliant radical writer who served 13 months in the early 1980s for publishing an underground socialist journal; Prosiolkhov, an incongruous but familiar figure in his army colonel's uniform; and Igor Chubais, a leader first of the Democratic Platform in the Communist Party and later of the Republican Party.
Here were people who had put their careers and their liberty on the line for democratic rights at a time when Boris Yeltsin was the autocratic Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk province, and when Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov was the cautiously liberal editor of an economics journal.
But now, September 10, the speakers' targets were different. The placards held by demonstrators scarcely bothered to denounce the Communist Party. The threat to democracy was seen to come from quite a different direction.
"Popov — we need a mayor, not a dictator!", one of the placards proclaimed. "The executive power — under the control of elected organs!", demanded another. Yet another placard recalled the days of the August coup: "The tank we overlooked — the mayoralty!"
The central demand of the demonstration, however, was that Militia General V.S. Komissarov, the choice of the city soviet deputies for Moscow police chief, be allowed to serve. "The organs of the militia in the hands of an honest professional!", a placard stated. And another: "Komissarov was legally appointed by a session of the Moscow soviet. We demand the fulfilment of the law, not mayoral arbitrariness!"
Most telling of all was the placard that read: "Down with the mafia that is scared of General Komissarov!"
While the veterans of the democratic movement railed against the ruling "democrats", I interviewed Alexander Popov, a socialist deputy to the city soviet.
"The right to name the head of the Moscow militia always used to belong to the city soviet", he explained. "A year ago we decided to remove the old incumbent, and a commission was set up to nominate a successor. They studied nine candidates and recommended one — Komissarov.
"Komissarov is a professional who specialises in the struggle against organised crime, or as people say here, the mafia. And not only against the ordinary street mafia, but also against the big league, the corrupt bureaucratic structures.
"Mayor Popov used all the bureaucratic tricks to stop the endorsement of Komissarov by the assembly from going ahead. The session was postponed, or they didn't raise the question, or they tried to put up new candidates.
"But all these attempts failed, and Komissarov was approved. He was then confirmed by the Russian government — the interior minister, Baranikov, issued an order appointing Komissarov as head of the Moscow militia.
"Still, the mayor wouldn't give in. Komissarov was receiving his salary, but he wasn't allowed to take up his duties. A special session of the Moscow soviet approved him again, but Popov blocked it. From Yeltsin, Popov obtained a decree that from now on the Moscow militia were subject to the mayor and to the Russian government.
"It's an unprecedented situation. The mayor has decided to take the Moscow law enforcement structure into his own hands. He's
appointed his assistant Yevgeny Savostyanov as head of the Moscow KGB. And now he's proposed Sergey Krasavchenko, who was his deputy on the journal Questions of Economics, as head of the Moscow militia."
Why, I asked, had Mayor Popov exposed himself to attack by rejecting Komissarov?
"Our conclusion is unanimous", Alexander Popov replied. "Komissarov can't be bought. And it's not just that he's honest himself — he's part of a team of similar people.
"Komissarov knows what materials to look for in the militia headquarters. We believe there are documents there that show complicity between the trade mafias and members of Popov's circle.
"Komissarov will find those documents. So he's very dangerous for the mayor."
Dangerous enough, it seems, for Mayor Popov to prefer to alienate people whose fight for democratic liberties goes back to the early 1980s, and who have enormous moral authority.
The demonstration was considerably more than a plea for an honest and capable police leadership. As one of the hunger-striking deputies told the crowd:
"This fight isn't just for Komissarov. It's against administrative arbitrariness and the abuse of power."
Boris Kagarlitsky voiced what must have been the thoughts of most of those present when he stated: "This isn't just a Moscow issue — it's about the situation in the country as a whole.
"And it isn't just a question of Mayor Popov. What's at stake here is the fate of democracy."