By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — "The brazen red-brown hordes, intoxicated by their impunity, have decided to openly proclaim their main goals ... Before us is an attempt by the apparatus of the Communist Party to return to power ... We are witnessing an assassination attempt on the Constitution of Russia, on its parliament and on its president."
In these lurid terms, Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov called on March 10 for the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation to back him in a crackdown on supporters of the former Soviet state. Some days earlier, Popov's city government had resolved to ban an opposition demonstration planned for central Moscow on March 17.
"I am the power", Popov told a meeting of army officers on March 12. "Unless there's a strong power in Russia, nothing will get done." Then, referring to the demonstration of February 23, "If necessary, I'll crush any such actions by force".
In the event, leaders of the Russian parliament refused Popov's demand for support. The mayor was forced to allow the March 17 demonstration action to go ahead. The meeting on the Manezh Square was almost entirely peaceful, and there were no arrests.
But the story was much less clear-cut with the other opposition action planned for March 17 — the attempt to convene a sitting of the dissolved Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR.
At its fifth sitting last September, the congress voted overwhelmingly to disband. After the USSR collapsed in December, a section of the opposition to the Russian government hit on the idea of reconvening the congress as a focus of protest.
A tenuous argument was advanced that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had been illegal, and that the congress still represented the legitimate authority throughout the former USSR. An organising committee of former deputies announced that a sitting of the congress would be held on March 17, the anniversary of the date last year when majorities in most of the Soviet republics voted in a referendum for a continuing political union.
The goal was to embarrass the Russian government and undermine its authority. Most of the population, however, were not impressed. Opinion polls showed repeatedly that only small
minorities supported reconvening the congress.
The government would have faced no dangers had it allowed the "congress" to gather. However, aware of their own collapsing popularity, and fearful of any initiatives by their opponents, the jittery authorities met the call for a "sixth congress" with ham-fisted repression.
Popov tried to distract his constituents from the woeful state of their city by whipping up blood lust. Meanwhile, other "democratic" leaders tried to intimidate their opponents with threats of legal action.
If former members of the congress convened, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation declared on March 11, they would be committing "an open attack on the state sovereignty of Russia". Representatives of the law enforcement organs would be "charged with ... persuading them to disperse". Participants in such a meeting, it was hinted, would face two-year jail terms.
The former deputies replied with moderation. According to spokesperson Sazha Umalatova, they had "no intention of ... establishing parallel structures of power", but merely intended to express their views on the present regime.
A key obstacle the former deputies faced was finding a hall in which to meet. Although Russian enterprises are now formally independent and able to rent premises to whom they choose, few managers care to resist pressures from powerful state officials. "Every day we've rented three or four places, and handed over the money", one of the organisers of the meeting told journalists. "But by evening they've all cancelled."
The venue that was finally lined up remained a closely guarded secret. On the morning of March 17, the former deputies boarded buses. The "congress" had been driven right outside Moscow, to a hall in a state farm more than 50 kilometres to the south-west.
Of 2250 former deputies, about 200 were present. Electricity supplies were cut off, though power was available in adjacent buildings. By candlelight and through megaphones, the participants adopted a package of 18 documents that had been distributed on the buses. Resolutions were passed condemning the social and economic policies of the Russian government, opposing the efforts to join Russia to NATO, defending freedom of the press and asserting the continued integrity of the USSR. A permanent presidium was elected.
In not much more than an hour, it was over. It was hard to tell who had won. Despite the fury of the liberal establishment, the
meeting had been held. A relatively small political current, whose views are far from being shared by the whole of the Russian left, had gained the worldwide attention it sought.
On the other hand, the participants had been forced to gather far from their supporters, under conditions that made proper debate impossible. It is not excluded that the organisers will face criminal charges.
A lesson heard disturbingly often in recent months has been impressed on the public yet again. In the new liberal Russia, democratic rights are only for "democrats".