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‘A whole army’ Russian senator breaks with political establishment and criticizes Moscow’s police crackdown on protesters

Источник: Meduza
Alexey Golovshchikov / Kommersant

On August 12, Vyacheslav Markhaev wrote on his Instagram page: “Instead of hearing out [protesters’] claims by organizing a dialogue, the administration found it easier to rely on force that was excessive in many cases.” The text was remarkable because Makhaev is a member of Russia’s Communist Party and a sitting senator in the Federation Council, as well as a former riot-police commander with 27 years of service. He says the actions of police officers and National Guard troops in Moscow in recent weeks has been “unlawful and professionally illiterate.” Makhaev’s comments about Moscow’s protests are sharply at odds with statements from other lawmakers. For example, Andrey Klimov, a fellow senator and chairman of Russia’s State Sovereignty Protection Commission, has accused the West of inciting activists. Communist leader and State Duma deputy Gennady Zyuganov, meanwhile, says the protests in the capital are the “evil grin of orange shenanigans” (referring to political unrest in Ukraine more than a decade ago). Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova asked Senator Markhaev why he’s decided to speak out in support of Moscow’s protesters, despite the hard-line positions of his colleagues and fellow party members.

Vyacheslav Markhaev doesn’t sound like a typical Russian senator when he defends protesters in Moscow, but the rationale he uses is in step with the rhetoric of his ostensibly leftist political party. Without ever mentioning by name the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, or Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Markhaev says the authorities are cracking down on protesters to avoid tackling the country’s socio-economic problems, effectively banning citizens from protecting their own interests and “destroying people’s faith in elections.” He also criticizes the National Guard, arguing that the government didn’t create “a whole army” in 2016 to address the country’s problems by political and economic means.

Markhaev says officials in Moscow are trying to use police violence to dissuade activists from further demonstrations, and this refusal to engage the opposition is the same reason independent candidates weren’t registered for September’s local elections. Instead of dialogue, the senator says, the authorities have chosen to “speak through the bludgeon.” By stonewalling independent politicians and issuing rally permits only at the city outskirts, however, officials are actually driving activists to break the law by protesting without permission where they can be heard. These “legal novelties,” like the “municipal filter” that’s used to limit independent mayoral candidates’ ballot access, are all “designed to limit Russia’s real opposition.”

This isn’t the first time Markhaev has broken ranks. In 1998, when he was the commander of Buryatia’s riot police, he was ordered to disperse a crowd of peaceful Buddhist protesters, and he refused. Asked why he’s criticizing law enforcement in Moscow now, Markhaev says it’s because he’s disappointed in his colleagues, and warns that “silence might lead us to unpredictable consequences,” including the potential end of Russia as we know it. (When speaking to Meduza, he repeatedly made it clear that he opposes violent “color revolution” upheaval, and stands with Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov against such extremism.)

Senator Markhaev insists that his compassion for the capital’s demonstrators has nothing to do with his ongoing mayoral campaign in Ulan-Ude, where he says he, too, has faced smear attempts by the local powers that be. “Connecting my statements to the fact that I’m a candidate is simply unacceptable and cruel,” he says.

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock