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Novinsky Boulevard, Nine Years Ago
On March 24, 1999, the NATO operation against Yugoslavia started. With unprecedented cynicism, NATO strategists called it Merciful Angel. As a result of the airstrikes, more than 500 civilians were killed. The economic damage caused to Serbia has been estimated at $1 billion. The airstrikes destroyed a large number of not only military, but also civil assets, including the Belgrade TV Center and TV Tower, hospitals and fire engine stations, oil refineries and power stations, factories and plants, including chemical and pharmaceutical ones, agricultural production storage facilities and grain elevators, bridges, highways, railway stations and grade separations, governmental buildings, including the Parliament of Yugoslavia, and residential property located close to “strategic” targets. The country’s economy was set back to the level of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of people became unemployed; an assessment of the exact damage caused to the region’s environment has not yet been completed.
All these are well-known facts, of which the media, in the coming days, will certainly remind us. But the outbreak of NATO aggression was also marked by an event that is rarely mentioned in media reports. If journalists mention it, they do so in passing. It concerns a spontaneous protest action that took place close to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
The influence of the events of March 25-27 on our recent political history has not been judged on its merits yet. Nevertheless, it was exactly at that time when a number of fundamental propaganda statements that have since become essential for current Russian political rhetoric were loudly pronounced for the first time. Many methods for building political parties, especially in the field of youth organizations (now seen as an established tool) can also be traced precisely to the experience of the spontaneous mass protests in the spring of 1999. Here is a summarized timeline of the protest actions.
On March 24, after dark, a few dozen Serbs were gathering near the Embassy. At first, their activity was limited to anti-U.S. slogans, but later on, when they saw that the police were quite tolerant towards them, the Serbs proceeded to more energetic actions. In particular, jars with letcho were bought at the nearest grocery store and then very quickly smashed against the walls of the Embassy building. Letcho, or vegetables in tomato sauce, is a traditional product of Bulgarian agriculture, but Russian journalists, for the sake of stoking interest, reported that it belonged to Serbian national cuisine, which would come as quite a surprise to the Serbian general public, who haven’t even heard the name… At some point, the protests took the form of open vandalism; someone urinated at the Embassy door–which, naturally, was filmed by TV cameras. The Serbs themselves insisted that the offence was committed by a “drunken hooligan who was just passing by.” But, in any case, this episode “made the cup run over,” and the police dispelled the protesters. However, things had been triggered, and during the whole night the Embassy area was visited by those who wanted to support their “Serbian brothers” or just participate in the vandalism, which was tacitly approved by the authorities. They were mainly football fans and similar marginal elements. Some of them stayed on the opposite side of Novinsky Boulevard, while the other part went home, having gotten nothing. So, at that stage, the action was primarily a protest by the Serbs themselves against NATO airstrikes. It was spontaneous, and its political line was not clearly stated (just obscene language or paradigmatic “Yankee go home” could be heard). The involvement of the Russian public was minimal.
On March 25 the situation moved to a totally new stage. Early in the morning, small groups of students started to gather in front of the Embassy. These students were just cutting school or had called in sick to skip lessons. Some of them carried banners featuring slogans in Russian and English, which had been obviously made in a hurry. Some time later, LDPR representatives arrived (who had always been light on their feet) with flags, banners and megaphones. The crowd grew, since lots of football fans, punk-anarchists, hippie-pacifists and other members of informal organizations kept arriving. The majority of protesters were the young, supported by frequent visitors of communist gatherings of pre-retirement age (however, the latter were in the minority). 90% of those present were Russians. There were almost no Serbs, in contrast to the previous day. At a certain moment, the people who stood on the opposite side from the Embassy (across the Garden Ring road) crossed the road and crowded the entire space in front of the building. It felt as if people were driven by some virtual power. The police tried to call the crowd to order, but their attempts were not extremely aggressive. Only those who threw hard objects (like glass tins or inkpots) at the Embassy were detained. Those throwing eggs, packs of kefir or splashing ketchup on the building remain unnoticed by the police, though the manifestation had not been approved officially.
The image of a crowd excited by its recognition of the fact that it is doing the right thing and the feeling that “everything is possible today” was shown on TV. The crowd at the Embassy kept growing. Finally, representatives of radical left-wing youth organizations arrived, with voice amplifiers and flags. Football fans supporting competing teams fraternized with each other and tied their football-branded scarves in a long string, which surrounded the Embassy, joining CSKA, Spartak, Torpedo, and Dynamo scarves together. It was really a stunning sight, something never seen before, either before the spring of 1999 or after. Football fans worked out the unofficial message of the event “the Serbs are nuts too hard for you to crack, just wait and you’ll get a second Vietnam.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that during these days the Embassy saw representatives of all youth subcultures, even those totally indifferent to politics. One could spot extreme sport fans, clubbers and acid music fans, graffiti fans, who painted the pavement at the Embassy and walls of the neighboring houses (however, they were not allowed to write on the Embassy walls). It is worth mentioning that there were almost no drunk people in the crowd, at least in the daytime. And this fact was not the result of enforcement by anyone (unlike in the present day at mass events organized by the government). There was no core organizational center in the crowd; but everybody understood that to emerge at the Embassy walls with a bottle in hands or in a drunken state was a sure way to discredit the initial idea of this protest (i.e. holy anger). Those who failed to understand this were politely asked to go and drink beer elsewhere. At nightfall one could spot drunken people in the crowd and some of manifestation members had obviously taken drugs. People started to urge each other to assault the US Embassy or to burn it. At this very moment OMON riot police brought the situation under control. The crowd was dispersed and over four hundred people detained.
The Russian government passed a night between March 25 and 26 in long and complicated consultations. Boris Yeltsin’s coterie was alarmed by the events of the two “protest days” and were likely to ban the event and punish its participants. This intention was possibly fostered by the memory of the events of autumn 1993. In the end, opinions expressed by Yury Luzhkov and Evgeny Primakov prevailed. The former supported the acts of popular frustration from the very start, while the latter ordered his plane to turn around in mid-air on the way to Washington, where he was to participate in negotiations (i.e. Primakov’s u-turn). Luzhkov and Primakov’s position was as follows: the protesters should be taken under control and be brought to order, rather than dispersed. This was what actually happened in reality.
On March 26 the public rally at the US Embassy was officially approved. Non-organized demonstrators found themselves squeezed between neat lines of the pro-Luzhkov Moscow Federation of Trade Unions on the left and the youth Yabloko organization on the right. The two parties in question were well-organized, carried banners and signs with mottos, flags and party symbols. All these materials were distributed among other protest-march participants. There were rumors spreading that Luzhkov would send mobile kitchen trailers with cooked meals, but the Mayor had most likely given this idea up. The Garden Ring was partially blocked for traffic from beginning of the demonstration, and at some point it became completely blocked. Drivers sitting in their blocked cars displayed solidarity with the demonstration participants. On March 26, the protest initiatives reached their climax. US flags were burned all over the country. There were stormy online discussions about the price of a couple of C-300 planes, which were to be purchased for Serbia and delivered to the Balkans (according to the discussion participants, they managed to collect $600, which in the end was spent in a Serbian restaurant). Participants of the demonstration at the US Embassy were waiting for either Luzhkov or Primakov or both at once. At last only Zhirinovsky emerged at the Embassy walls, but even he was greeted with a storm of applause. The general air of the event came to resemble a standard May 1st official gathering of a “system” opposition. There were only 2 or 3 Serbs among the event participants and even they left quite fast. Young members of unofficial organizations also felt ill at ease and left around midday.
March 27. The people who gathered at the US Embassy walls associated this day with the Russian Communist Party and Gennady Zyuganov. The event started as a spontaneous and unplanned one aimed at freethinking youth, who shared anti-globalist views, rather than sticking to patriotic notions. Close to the end of the day the demonstration turned into a purely pro-communist performance (like those when people carried religious icons and Stalin’s portraits). There was no officially approved demonstration at the Embassy on March 28, just a few pickets in front of the Embassy. They remained there for a whole day. On March 29 there was nobody except street sweepers cleaning away the evidence of people’s anger.
Going back to the statements featured in the beginning of the article (dealing with the impact of March 25-27 events on the Russian political life) we should point out the following: the authorities were not exactly aware of the fact that the young might develop into active participants in political processes. The youth of the 1990s was totally indifferent to what was happening around them. It was unfashionable and untrendy to follow political news or to share political views, regardless of their nature and direction. In order to drive youth towards participation in the 1996 presidential elections, political strategists had to involve the full potential of Russian pop culture (the launch of the Muz-TV channel, the broadcast of its pretentious opening ceremony, the participation of Boris Yeltsin) and the use of phrases and terms aimed at PC gamers (“Vote or Lose”). On top of that, the media began to heighten fears about possible Communist revenge, displaying indecisive and passive Zyuganov as a kind of Communistic Freddy Krueger with knives instead of fingers. However, all these tricks had only a moderate effect and hardly managed to motivate youth to do anything. Yeltsin hardly won the elections (some people say that he did not win them at all).
Only three years later, the situation had changed dramatically. There was no need to motivate anyone for anything, or to give or offer any incentives. Young and active people attended events, organized themselves, handled the supervision of their own activities and ensured that everything passed without any problems and alcohol-related incidents. The conclusion is that the young can eagerly participate in political processes if statesmen refrain from feeding them with stale ideological issues, a communist threat, or liberal values. The greatest impact upon the young is secured through discussions of anti-globalism (which is an extremely trendy topic abroad) and a purely Russian melancholy caused by lost imperial power. The situation with NATO’s bombardments in Serbia served as the ideal manifestation of the anti-globalist-imperial pattern. Such ideas prove to be more effective if the young have the chance to engage in some violent activities – in other words, if they get the chance to throw things at somebody or to set something on fire. In this sense, all parties like Nashi, Mestnye, Iduschie Vmeste and Molodaya Gvardia are a direct consequence of the protest-related initiatives that took place on March 25-27. As for the burning of the so-called pornographic novels by Vladimir Sorokin, this is a direct consequence of the US flag burning in 1999.
Vassily Vasin, a prominent Russian anti-globalist and the frontman of the Kirpichi rap group, created rhymes on another subject: “things born of noble intent often end up in a deplorable state.” Unfortunately, such things are most common in Russia. A spontaneous upsurge of civil consciousness in a generation previously considered to be passive and indifferent to politics lead to the launch of a new counterpart of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. We, i.e. those who stood in front of the US Embassy in 1999, tried our best…but you know the rest…