Wednesday, July 12, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — Vladimir Soloveichik wasn’t home when the police showed up to question him about plans for opposition protests during this weekend’s Group of Eight summit. So they questioned his 67-year-old mother instead.

“They started asking her questions like had she ever been a member of a political organization, did she own car, had she ever used the Internet, had she ever been to extremist Web sites?” he said. “It was against the law and completely ridiculous. She is a sick old woman who hasn’t left the apartment in years.”

Mr. Soloveichik, a prominent organizer of planned protests at the summit, said it is a measure of how far Russian authorities are willing to go to suppress opposition this weekend that even housebound old ladies aren’t safe from interrogation.

“The Russian authorities are terrified they will look bad if anything happens while the leaders of the G-8 are in St. Petersburg,” he said.

Russia’s chairmanship of the summit — which also comprises the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany and Japan — has come under fire from critics who accuse the Kremlin of reversing democratic reforms and stifling dissent since President Vladimir Putin came to power six years ago.

If further proof of those authoritarian tendencies is needed, opposition figures say, the lead-up to the summit has provided it.

“Systematic repression against the Russian opposition has become in fact the prelude to the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg — that is to say, part of its agenda,” said a statement released yesterday by participants in the “Other Russia” conference, a meeting of opposition figures held in Moscow this week.

The Bush administration irritated Moscow by sending two senior State Department officials to the conference, where activists have been beaten, detained and otherwise abused, participants said.

Busloads of riot police surrounded the hotel where the meeting was being held and on Tuesday plainclothes agents seized four participants from the hotel lobby before taking them away in unmarked cars.

Chess champion turned opposition politician Garry Kasparov, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and ex-Kremlin aide Andrei Illarionov were among those who did make it to the meeting, during which speakers decried increasing Kremlin control over the press, civil society, private business, regional governments and the courts.

Mr. Kasparov said one goal of the conference was to push Western leaders to “stop pretending that Putin is a leader of a democratic country.”

“If a political leader boasts about promoting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot sell democracy in Russia down the river in exchange for some other political gains,” Mr. Kasparov said.

In St. Petersburg, police have questioned more than 700 opposition figures and warned that unsanctioned demonstrations will not be tolerated, Mr. Soloveichik said.

“There has been an intense campaign of intimidation,” said Mr. Soloveichik, an organizer of the Russian Social Forum, a protest event timed to coincide with the summit that is expected to draw more than 1,500 people.

Activists are planning to demonstrate on the streets of St. Petersburg on Saturday as G-8 leaders arrive, but it is not clear how much support they will be able to muster and authorities have yet to grant them permission for the protest.

They have been granted the right to use St. Petersburg’s Kirov Stadium, which is cut off from the rest of St. Petersburg on an island.

“The authorities didn’t want to be criticized for being undemocratic so they’ve created this little reservation for us, like a zoo where you can go and see democracy on stage,” said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization Studies and one of the opposition forum’s organizers.

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