Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ten Thousand Muscovites Protest Iraq War in front of U.S. Embassy

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U.S. Embassy Moscow
April 9, 2003

Russia Update: Wednesday, April 9, 2003
E-Gram No. 045 Reporting from Moscow

Ten Thousand Muscovites Protest Iraq War in front of U.S. Embassy

On Wednesday afternoon, Moscow witnessed its biggest anti-war demonstration of the year as ten thousand office workers, "United Russia" party members and university students marched and protested in front of the American Embassy. The demonstration was sanctioned by the authorities, and was organized in the wake of the unfortunate incident in which the Russian Ambassador to Iraq and his convoy of automobiles were fired on as they attempted to evacuate from Baghdad to Syria. Most Russians blame the U.S. for the incident, conveniently forgetting the circumstances under which it took place (the Russians were being escorted by Iraqis, who took them outside the approved route and into a combat zone). "United Russia" pounced on the opportunity to prove that it could mobilize more "political troops" than the Communists, and quickly organized a protest meeting.

"United Russia" succeeded in its objective by attracting over three times as many people to its demonstration as the largest protest organized by the Communists in recent months. As might be expected, however, not everyone was a "volunteer" in the purest sense of the word. Thousands of university students got the day off today, and were bused in from Moscow State University, MGIMO (the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations), the Russian "Friendship of Peoples" University and other worthy institutions of higher learning. Students we talked with said they were "strongly encouraged" to volunteer (добровольно-принудительно). Office workers who happened to be "United Russia" party members were also given the afternoon off, as were many trade union members. As is the case with nearly every "United Russia" demonstration, the crowd was pro-Putin, largely docile, and had to be encouraged to shout and cheer by party activists (and sometimes TV cameramen) who were posted along the way.

The demonstration was scheduled to run from noon until 2:00 p.m., and local militia were told to prepare for as many as 100,000 protesters. Several hours before the event was scheduled to begin, unprecedented numbers of militia began showing up to seal off the streets around the Embassy. We are told that about 2,300 law enforcement personnel participated, including 1300 MVD and 200 OMON troops as well as four K-9 units.

The demonstrators assembled at three points. To the west, about 2,000 protesters gathered at the Gorbatiy Bridge between the Embassy and the Russian White House. Protesters also gathered on the Garden Ring Road, north of the Embassy at Kudrinskiy Square, and south of the Embassy at Sennaya Square (in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). At around noon, the Ring Road demonstrators converged on the Old American Embassy Building on Novinskiy Bulvar. Due to the large numbers involved, the demonstrators were allowed to occupy several lanes of traffic directly in front of the Embassy, and the entire road was sealed off for several hours. As the Garden Ring groups were arriving, the Gorbatiy Most group was allowed to march up Devyatinskiy Pereulok directly past the main entrance to the Embassy, party flags flying. As they passed the gatehouse, marchers yelled "Позор" (Shame), and "Нет Войне" (No to War). Some of the more rambunctious youths in the front unleashed a couple of dozen tomatoes and eggs at the gatehouse. These few miscreants were quickly taken into custody by the militia, and the rest of the Gorbatiy Bridge group hastened forward to join their comrades in front of the Old American Embassy Building.

Once the entire crowd had gathered on Novinskiy Bulvar, a large public-address truck posted in front of the Old Embassy Building began belting out incredibly loud patriotic songs. Periodically, "United Russia" politicos would address the crowd, but a ferocious echo problem made their speeches largely unintelligible. The crowd cheered anyway, and remained well organized and well behaved throughout the event.

Over 2,000 signs and banners were carried by the protesters. Several persons with whom I talked noted that the signs appeared to be somewhat better made than those on display during Communist demonstrations. For the most part, they were also less insulting. Typical slogans included "Make Economics, not War" ("Занимайтесь экономкой, а не войной!"), "Columbus, Why Did You Discover America?" ("Колумб - зачем ты открыл Америку?"), "Bush, Don't make War on Diplomats" ("Буш - не воюй с дипломатами!"), "America, You Should Be Ashamed" ("Стыдись Америка"), "Down with War in Iraq" ("Долой войну в Ираке") and "Shame on Bush and America" ("Позор Бушу и Америке").

There was at least one sign in the crowd, however, that led one to believe that maybe a few Zhirinovskiy supporters had snuck into the mix. It read: "Iraq Won't Get on Its Knees Like Monica" ("Ирак - не Моника, на колени не встанет"). On closer observation, one actually could make out a few LDPR flags. The LDPR protesters were clustered around their daily gathering spot at Novinskiy Bulvar 18, but these dozen or so unsanctioned protesters were entirely submerged in the sea pro-Putin demonstrators.

The protest meeting came to a rather quick and unexpected end. As if on signal, the various groups of demonstrators began dispersing quietly to their assembly points at around 1:30 p.m. They then boarded their buses and left, presumably for a long lunch at some trendy watering hole. Some TV correspondents, who were doing their stand-ups before the Embassy in order to use the crowd as a background, had to hurry their reports in order to keep the camera in front of a respectable number of people. The demonstration was over by 1:45 p.m. Local media have given estimates that between 15,000 and 50,000 participated in the demonstration. An actual count -- conducted by yours truly high up in a nearby yellow and white building -- reveals the figure to be closer to ten or eleven thousand. Nonetheless, this is still an impressive number, and should give "United Russia" heart as it begins its election campaign against the Communists.

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