By Ria Novosti
By Marc Bennetts
When police trucks pulled up at Moscow’s anti-Putin Occupy camp on Monday afternoon, activists feared the worst.
“Police trucks are moving in. They might be going to break it up,” Solidarity movement leader Ilya Yashin wrote in a Twitter post, triggering the mass arrival of journalists to the camp and a frenzy of online activity.
But the authorities had no plans, for now at least, to move against the camp, which has become one of the most high-profile symbols of the challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
They were simply worried about the grass and the damage being caused to it by the camp’s rough and ready kitchen area.
“A representative of the local authorities came to see us and expressed displeasure that we were damaging the grass,” Yashin told RIA Novosti at the camp. “We are going to move our kitchen to another spot.”
And Yashin stressed, as journalists and activists looked on, that the camp was staying put.
“We are not going anywhere,” he said.
It was at the camp’s location in the trendy downtown Moscow neighborhood of Chistye Prudy that the first mass protest against Putin took place after last December’s disputed parliamentary polls, as some 5,000 demonstrators led by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attempted to take their discontent to the nearby Kremlin walls. That protest triggered an outpouring of anti-government dissent not seen here since the early 1990s, and much larger anti-Putin rallies followed in the months to come.
But on May 6, the largely peaceful protests suddenly turned violent as demonstrators and police fought pitched battles in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third presidential term. Hundreds of activists then spent the next three days roaming through the capital’s squares and boulevards, before gathering at Chistye Prudy, around a statue of 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Kunanbayev, who quickly became the symbol of the camp.
A Moscow city official told RIA Novosti later on Monday that police had arrived after a local resident had complained about the condition of the grass, just one of a number of reported complaints by local residents since the camp was established.
But camp activists say not all the complaints are genuine.
Opposition figures have said they will try to prosecute an elderly woman who complained about vandalism, litter and late-night noise at the camp on state-run television last week. Bloggers later said they had identified the woman as a member of the ruling United Russia party who lives several kilometers from the site of the camp.
“All these so-called complaints are just lies,” said middle-aged camp supporter Tatiana Zhirkova. “Propaganda, that’s all. Just look around you. Can you see any rubbish?”
Activists have organized a team of cleaners for the camp and a list of rules tacked to a nearby tree stresses respect for the camp’s neighbors, as well as nearby flowerbeds.
“Putin is our president! Down with the Orange Revolution generation!” shouted a middle-aged man at activists on Monday afternoon, a reference to the uprisings that brought regime change to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan some ten years ago.
“How much did they pay you?” a young dreadlocked activist shouted in response, as news film crews recorded the confrontation.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, is reported to have said late last week that the “illegal” camp would eventually be dispersed. But Moscow City Hall later denied that plans were being drawn up to break it up.
But Monday evening saw another scare for activists, when around 15 police trucks again pulled up at the edge of the camp. There were well over 1,000 people in the square at this point, and a confrontation seemed inevitable. Supporters and journalists again rushed to the camp, swelling numbers to over 2,000.
But this time, the police were just after the camp’s bio-toilets, which they said would soon be returned.
“So why did they need about 15 police trucks full of cops?” a camp activist was overheard asking.
Mission achieved, the police left, only for a much smaller contingent of officers to return around an hour later. But camp security guards remained nervous, and their walkie-talkies exploded into life around an hour later, when three police trucks pulled up briefly again.
“The regional police chief promised me that the camp would not be broken up today,” Yashin said. “But he didn’t explain the large police presence.”
A police spokesperson told RIA Novosti that police were working as usual to “ensure law and order” at the camp.
Evenings have seen crowds of over 2,000 people at the camp, the first Occupy type protest in Russia. And on Sunday, a host of leading literary figures led more than 10,000 people to the site, ensuring national media coverage.