By Conor Humphries - Analysis
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s sharp reaction to the violent anti-government protests in Moldova’s capital this week betrayed deep-rooted fears that the global economic crisis might spark mass protests on its own streets.
Crowds of Moldovan students denouncing alleged election fraud by the ruling Communists smashed their way into the parliament and set it ablaze last Tuesday. The authorities responded with a crackdown and mass arrests.
For Moscow’s ruling class, the protests revived bad memories of street rallies in ex-Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia that toppled pro-Moscow regimes, and raised fears that young Russian crowds might one day slip out of the Kremlin’s control.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the young protesters who ransacked Moldova’s parliament as “pogrom-makers” set on destroying the country. Official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta blamed the West and warned of civil war in Moldova.
“The Moscow authorities are afraid of spontaneous mass protests in the regions...and for this reason Russian television is showing what is happening in an exclusively negative light,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst.
“It is beneficial for the Kremlin to show the consequences of peoples’ protests to justify why it needs to be tough,” Oreshkin said.
Muscovites have so far shunned big protests but the deepening financial crisis is raising fears that workers in Russia’s industrial heartlands, where factories have fired workers and slashed pay, may take to the streets.
As in Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” and the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution a year later, Russian media portrayed Moldovan protesters as irresponsible, led astray by Western agents -- in particular the neighbouring Romanians.
Russian television described the protests as pogroms and invited a string of analysts to explain the “provocations from abroad.” The protesters were described as “terrorists” by the deputy head of parliament’s foreign policy committee.
“The slogans that were proclaimed and the flags that were waved about in Chisinau deeply disturbed us,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state-run news agency RIA.
The Kremlin reacted to the so-called “Colour Revolutions” by clamping down on the opposition and setting up its own youth organisations that took to the streets by the tens of thousands with the faces of Russia’s leaders on their T-shirts.
The Kremlin’s youth battalions have been less active since Vladimir Putin successfully handed the presidency to close confidant Dmitry Medvedev. Prolonged pressure from the authorities has left Russia’s opposition weak and fractured.
But the global economic crisis, which has put over one million Russians out of work since December and cost the rouble one-third of its value against the dollar, is reviving fears of challenges to the country’s tightly managed political system.
Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s political mastermind, recently made a rare public appearance to defend the stability of the Russian political system and reject calls for reforms, a move widely seen as betraying nervousness about the crisis.
Like others in the Russian elite, Surkov believes Russia’s system of managed democracy is the best way to ensure stability and prosperity and to avoid the kind of political chaos which has plagued neighbouring Ukraine since the Orange Revolution.
Others believe the Kremlin is simply storing up trouble for the future by putting a lid on dissent.
“If the economic situation in Russia deteriorates, such a rebellion could become really possible,” said Yevgeny Volk, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation think-tank.
“Young people will suffer the most from the economic collapse... and this is what the authorities are most afraid of,” he said. “It’s a serious challenge for the leadership.”
In the West media coverage of the Moldova riots was more sympathetic. The European Union urged all sides to refrain from violence, but stressed the right of protesters to demonstrate in peace.
Both reactions follow a well-worn groove, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
When people take to the street in a former Soviet republic, the Western media automatically presumes people’s rights have been trampled on, he said. In Russia, everyone presumes the West is sticking its nose where it does not belong.
“Russia thinks this is a clear provocation, an attempt to use force to change the election result,” Lukyanov said. “Russia is always against any forceful attempt to change the status quo.”