A colleague of mine with Canadian connections yesterday sent me a link to a lovely video about “La Révolte des Casseroles”, Montreal’s creative protest against rising university fees and, now especially, Quebec Province’s Bill 78, passed on 18 May of this year, which severely restricts freedom of assembly in Quebec.
I immediately tweeted the video to the attention of some well-known figures in Moscow’s ongoing protest movement, wagering that they would find it relevant. Within 5 minutes Roustem Adagamov, the popular photographer and blogger, had retweeted the video, and I found a couple of the replies to his tweet particularly interesting:
«Ох, щас омоновцы наши смотрят и слюнки пускают!» (“Oh, now our riot police are drooling over this!”)
«На российских центральных каналах предпочитают несколько иное видео с акций протеста на Западе” (“On Russia state TV they prefer a few other videos of protest actions in the West.”)
Indeed, Russian state TV discourse and imagery, not to mention a recent statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has recently been pointing to the way that riot police are used to control demonstrations in “the West”, sometimes quite violently (Russian blogger Dmitry Surnin has an interesting post about this here.). The point is made explicitly to justify the way Moscow city police and Russian OMON (riot police) have been responding to opposition marches in Moscow since December.
This is both disingenuous and at the same time quite genuine. The problem is they are right. Even the U.S., the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy who is quick to point out repression elsewhere, is a state that will use its legitimate forces of violence to quell internal unrest, and the line between protest that is allowed to go on unmolested vs. protest that is violently smacked down appears very thin.
In a recent interview with the news agency RosBalt.ru, Ben Judah, a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, commented on the use of police forces to break up demonstrations in the West:
“I constantly repeat to Western politicians and diplomats that Putin follows their activities intently, and that if they employ these methods in the West, Putin will simply employ them himself against democratic movements. However, Western politicians just don’t understand that their domestic activities immediately turn up on the television screens of Russia…”
In the current international discursive arena around street protests, it is hard to sort out who is the pot and who is the kettle – but the blackness of each is not in dispute.