By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — The administration of Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov has continued its attacks on human rights, banning an opposition demonstration planned for March 17.
The city government has also reportedly ordered the prosecutor's office to investigate the conduct of foreign nationals among the opposition forces, with a view to bringing deportation proceedings.
The call for the March 17 demonstration was issued by a coalition of organisations, mostly fragments of the now-outlawed Communist Party, which seek the reconvening of the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR. In the view of these organisations, the congress represents the only legitimate authority in Russia.
The ban on the March 17 gathering follows the action of the city government in mobilising 12,000 police on February 23 to prevent an opposition demonstration from being held on the Manezh Square in central Moscow. The square has been the site of numerous demonstrations in recent years by both supporters and opponents of the present Russian rulers.
Although organisers of the February 23 action urged calm and restraint, clashes erupted after riot police began kicking a 16-year-old demonstrator who climbed with a flag onto the top of a police bus. Organisers of the demonstration reported that 65 demonstrators were injured, including 17 who required hospital treatment. Moscow militia authorities reported injuries, consisting largely of bruised hands and dislocated fingers, to 21 police. Two police were hospitalised.
The banning of the March 17 demonstration adds to suspicions, voiced by Moscow City Soviet president Nikolai Gonchar and others, that Mayor Popov and his associates engineered the February 23 confrontation in an attempt to gain increased powers and help thwart the rise of a strong opposition movement.
It is now known that the huge turnout of police was ordered even though the city government had advice that the February 23 demonstration was likely to be small. It has also been established that leading figures in the city government were closely supervising the actions of police on February 23. Barely a stone's throw from where police were beating demonstrators on Tverskaya Street, an "anti-demonstration headquarters" was operating in the office of Vice-Mayor
Yuri Luzhkov. According to the liberal daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the actions of law enforcement bodies were coordinated from this point.
It cannot be said that Muscovites have reacted with outrage to the attacks on civil liberties. The main preoccupation in this city is with finding enough food to survive on, and more than a few people react with unconcealed delight to the thought of former Communist Party members being kicked and clubbed.
Nevertheless, the city government's actions have been denounced by a broad range of political and social groups. At least among the more thoughtful sectors of the intelligentsia, there is an understanding that the slender democratic opening which has existed for the past few years is under threat.
As well as being condemned by various heirs to the mantle of the Communist Party, the city authorities' response to the February 23 demonstration has drawn fire from the the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, the Socialist Party of Workers and the Party of Labour.
Individuals who have attacked the Popov administration for its actions include Viktor Kuzin of the group Democratic Union. As an organiser of anti-Communist meetings in 1988, Kuzin was beaten and jailed. Another notable critic of the city government has been Moscow prosecutor Gennady Ponomarev. Following up on earlier statements, Ponomarev on March 5 argued that the decision to ban the March 17 meeting "could not be considered either reasonable or legal".
Perhaps the most telling response has come from the Moscow Soviet's Subcommittee on the Rights of Citizens. The subcommittee accused Popov and Luzhkov of "reviving the practice of conducting dialogue with slanders, provocations and violence", and called on police and soldiers not to take part in such actions.
At a press conference on February 26, members of the subcommittee said they would seek to bring criminal charges against the mayor, vice-mayor and police chief for acting outside their authority. The Moscow Soviet had voted to permit the February 23 demonstration, and many deputies have argued that Popov's action in suppressing the gathering was therefore illegal.
However, the chances of such a prosecution going ahead appear slim. Under a decree of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the elected deputies to the Moscow Soviet have been stripped of virtually all their powers.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, representatives of the
city government who attended the February 26 press conference declared openly that they filed documents of the Subcommittee on the Rights of Citizens in the rubbish bin.