Sunday, 6 May 2012

Blood, Batons and Tear Gas- The Day Before Putin’s Inauguration

Protesters push metal fencing between themselves and the police . The police  broke through some minutes later.

It was expected to be a damp squib. A last ineffectual protest against Vladimir Putin’s presidential election win in March 2012. But if this was supposed to mark the end of protesters’ hopes of stopping Mr Putin becoming Russia’s president for a third time it went with a bang rather than a whimper.

Everyone was surprised by how many anti-Putin protesters showed up. In all likelihood the numbers exceeded 20,000 and were comparable to the protests on Bolotnaya square, over the river from the Kremlin, that were held in outrage at widespread allegations of election fraud in parliamentary elections in December 2011. This time the protesters were marching to Bolotnaya square once again.

The size of march surprised observers.

Down one of Moscow’s central thoroughfares they came, the usual hotpotch of colourful opposition group flags, showing off both their enthusiasm and their disunity. But when the main column reached a bridge leading to Bolotnaya square protesters were aghast to see ranks of interior ministry troops and OMOH (special riot police) lined up in front of them. There was a relatively sharp right turn that had to be made to reach the square. 

Protesters were shocked to see so many police barring the way to the Kremlin should they have wanted to go there.

Things deteriorated quite quickly from there. The protesters have hardliners of their own. A group of them including Lawyer, blogger and activist Navalny and opposition campaigner Sergei Udaltsov promptly sat down on front of the police line and said they wouldn’t move until Putin stepped down. This drew many cheers from the crowd. But around them were other groups of protesters who were more militant. How it started was unclear but very soon protesters pushed through the first line, only to be met by hundreds of police reinforcements charging back. 

Protesters break through police lines. The first charge came back about 30 seconds later.

In the ensuing hours hundreds were dragged away into police vans as the batons and tear gas flew. Some youths provoked the police by throwing stones, bottles and even the occasional firework. But the police lost their cool as well, lashing out with batons and boots, causing head injuries and taunting protesters to come and fight them.

Many baton charges followed. This group of police drag away  another protester.

By the evening the police had sealed the remaining protesters into a small part of street.

What was in December 2011 a large, peaceful protests had this time turned ugly. Authorities say it’s provocation by members of a desperate opposition riven with divisions. Those opposition groups  warn it’s a taste of life to come under Vladimir Putin’s third term. 

The sign reads, "tomorrow a thief crowns himself."

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Kalmykia’s ABC- Aliens, Buddhism and Chess

Kalmykia's leaders like to use its religious status with events like this Buddhist rock festival 'Ocean of Compassion'.

It’s a Buddhist enclave in Russia’s Muslim and Christian south. It’s populated by descendants of Mongols and Western Chinese who migrated here centuries ago. It’s a world capital of chess. It’s the Republic of Kalmykia and its capital Elista, and it’s making the headlines for some spurious reasons.

Elista has the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.

Kalmykia’s former president (it’s a federal subject of Russia), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov seems to be welcomed almost anywhere he chooses to go. He’s been snapped at the Nobel Peace Prize awards next to Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. But he also declares himself a friend of former dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. His latest trip has been to see none other that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad could apparently squeeze Ilyumzhinov in for three hours of chess and chat during which time he agreed to make chess compulsory for Syrian schoolchildren.

Ilyumzhinov was responsible for promoting Kalmykia as the only Buddhist region in Europe, with Europe’s largest Buddhist temple. He came to power as the region’s president in 1993 by promising each voter $100. He also brought chess to the region, and accusations of corruption. His plans for a ‘chess city’ were met with fury by impoverished Kalmyks. He has been accused of involvement in the murder of a journalist who discovered corrupt finances in the region. He also claimed in an interview a few months before he resigned that he had been abducted by aliens. 

Part of Kirsan Ilyumzhiov's 'chess city' which cost a fortune and was never really finished or put to good use.

Then there is Telo Rinpoche. He heads the regions Buddhist community and is trying to re-introduce Buddhism to Mongolia further east. When I met him in 2009 as he hosted a dinner for Buddhist and Russian rock stars he told me of his eagerness to promote love and compassion as something, “valuable to every human being.”  He and Ilyumzhinov have invited the Dalai Lama to Kalmykia and despite Rinpoche’s meandering life in and out of the religion and in and out of the US he is now one of his spiritual leader’s foremost lieutenants. This comes much to the chagrin of China, which views his actions in Mongolia especially with much suspicion.

Telo Rinpoche, born to Kalmyk parents is now the Dalai Llama's man trying to bring Buddhism back to the former Soviet Union.

Leaders like this have lead to the creation of a Kalmykia with a huge temple and a half finished ‘chess city’ nestled amid a poor republic of steppe herders, and an alien abductee. I’m sure Mr Assad, the Dalai Lama and the rest had plenty to talk about.