Pro-Kremlin groups stage macabre animal circus
The activists of Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia) called on officials to pick their heads out of the sand, amid a deepening economic crisis and an ostrich was there to drive the message home.
Moscow -- The ostrich stood in the snow with a sign reading "bureaucrat" hung round its neck. A mostly young crowd surrounding the frightened bird guffawed.
The ostrich, standing beside a bucket of sand, had been brought from a farm near Moscow and put on display in a cordoned-off area on a busy Moscow street by a pro-Kremlin youth group.
The activists of Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia) called on officials to pick their heads out of the sand, amid a deepening economic crisis. The ostrich was there to drive the message home.
In a similar performance, the Young Russia activists last month brought to a protest a live turkey said to represent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. A bear cub was on hand for another event a year ago.
Young Russia is not alone in using animals and birds as live props for their increasingly bizarre street theatre.
At an annual summer camp on the Lake Seliger in central Russia, Nashi (Ours) another pro-Kremlin group, set up an installation in which a pig was meant to represent Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
"This looks good and interesting," Yevgeny Nasonov, a spokesman for Young Russia, said, explaining the idea behind the use of the animals.
"We are seeking to get our message across not only through statements but also through images. This way they are better remembered," he said.
Opposition activists and animal welfare groups contend, however, that some of these messages would be better forgotten.
In December, anti-Kremlin activists saw a gruesome image as they arrived at a hotel near Moscow for a major conference called Solidarnost (Solidarity) to help unite liberal opposition.
A bus stopped near the meeting venue and several men started throwing sheep onto the asphalt. Several sheep were dead, others were emaciated or dying and wore caps and covers with words "Solidarnost" emblazoned on them.
"We were shocked," said Oleg Kozlovsky, an activist with Oborona, an anti-Kremlin group, who witnessed the event.
The conference's organizers were unable to establish who had been behind the incident and the police did not take it seriously, he added.
Young Russia, Nashi and a third pro-Kremlin group known as Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guard) denied they were involved.
In the latest incident, the staff at Novaya Gazeta, the country's most critical opposition newspaper, late last month received a package containing donkey ears.
A slip of paper attached said that the ears had been cut off a dead donkey -- and the letter's return address pointed to the presidential administration, said Nadezhda Prusenkova, spokeswoman for Novaya Gazeta.
The newspaper believes that Nashi -- whom it recently accused of trying to bribe its journalists and with which it has a long record of enmity -- was behind the macabre prank.
"It's their mark, signature and fantasy," said Prusenkova.
Nashi spokeswoman dismissed the charge as the publication's "spring paranoia."
Youth groups like Nashi, which emerged during the Putin presidency, profess vehement support for the Kremlin.
They are widely believed to be the product of its spin doctors who created them to counter a threat of the so-called "colour revolutions" which ousted the old regimes in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.
Since President Dmitry Medvedev took power last year, the groups have kept a lower profile.
But they have said they saw nothing wrong in making animals part of their political statements, insisting that no animal was ever harmed. The ostrich was safely returned to its home base at the ostrich farm near Moscow, said Young Russia's Nasonov.
The pig, who last year was the centerpiece of the Nashi anti-Estonian installation and whose name is Andrus Ansip (after the Estonian prime minister) now lives in the Nashi office, said the group's spokeswoman.
Animal rights groups and anti-Kremlin activists however said the use of animals for political purposes was deeply deplorable and simply not safe.
"Even if no animal is hurt during such performances, it is a rather dangerous thing as it is unclear how it would behave," said Kozlovsky of Oborona.
At least one animal -- a donkey -- has died during one of the youth's street performances in the past, according to Vita, an animal rights group.
"The situation in Russia is unique," said Konstantin Sabinin, a projects director at Vita. "We still do not have a law against animal cruelty in Russia."
Such a law had been in the works, he said, until Vladimir Putin, then acting president, vetoed it in 2000, on the grounds that existing legislation was sufficient.
Subsequent appeals by celebrities and animal rights groups to Putin and later his successor Medvedev have brought no result, said Sabinin.
That Russia banned the hunting of baby harp seals earlier this year was simply a "miracle" that came after years of campaigning, he added.
Putin, Russia's powerful prime minister and still its ultimate strongman, has nurtured his image as an animal lover, posing for cameras with his Labrador Connie, a pony and a baby tiger.
Protecting animal rights has become especially difficult in the past year, said Sabinin. These days, he added, the authorities did not even bother to respond to his group's inquiries.
"The authorities just stopped reacting altogether."