Unusual suspects

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Unusual suspects

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Michael Jackson fans are among the first to feel the sting of Putin's new anti-protest law. Above, Jackson performing in Moscow, 1983 © Corbis

The three-year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death on 25th June was marked in various locations across the world in fittingly idiosyncratic style. Grieving fans in St Petersburg, however, found themselves moonwalking onto the wrong side of Russia’s new protest law.

Having gathered outside the US Consulate the small group of devotees began lighting candles and singing. In front of the building the group draped a banner which read “We remember, we grieve” in honour of their idol.

Obviously such a display was too much for local police, who swooped in to disperse the crowd. Using powers granted to them under the new anti-protest law signed earlier this month, just as persistent anti-Putin protests became unmanageable, police broke up the 15-strong crowd for failing to apply for official permission to hold a rally. They later arrested a fan dressed as Jackson who they accused of having organised the event.

Whether the action was taken in order to avoid accusations of double standards by opposition protesters who believe the new law has been targeted at them, or simply a pre-emptive move to save the locals from an amateur rendition of “Earth Song,” we may never know. What can be said with some degree of certainty is that the police are ready and willing to fully implement these new powers irrespective of the scale or threat posed by the rally in question.

In theses cases the stakes are pretty high. Those attending the Jackson vigil could face fines of up to £5000 while the organisers can be landed with a bill of over £30,000 for their trouble.

Yet although such an approach might work in dissuading fans of deceased pop-stars from gathering in small numbers, it seems unlikely to have a similar effect on larger scale political protests.

In both its content, and apparently its implementation, the protest law appears to be yet another scare tactic after more direct routes failed to quell protests.

Meanwhile, across town at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, German Gref, president of Russia’s state-owned bank Sberbank, appeared to sum up the underlying paranoia of some in the country’s political elite. Speaking on the topic of press freedom he said:

“How do you control a society where everyone has the same access to information, where everyone has the right to make their own judgment as opposed to getting information prepared by analysts, who have been instructed by the government, and enormous media machines that are allegedly independent, even though we really know that they are put in place to preserve a stratified society. How do you live in such a society? It makes me fearful.”

Perhaps this is indeed the burning question costing those in the Kremlin many hours of lost sleep. If so then it might go some way to explain the somewhat haphazard attempts to undermine the protest movement, whether through propaganda campaigns on state TV or dawn raids on opposition leaders .

Whatever the case, it is unlikely that MJ’s fanclub will be the last group to be caught in the crossfire.

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