Saint Patrick: Subversive to Moscow?

Posted March 15th, 2011 at 4:31 pm (UTC+0)

For the first time in almost two decades, Moscow authorities will not allow a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Every year, since 1992, the Irish community has led a street parade through the center of Moscow. Increasingly popular with Muscovites, the parade draws thousands of Russian revelers, many with their hair dyed green.

But this year, Russian officials worry that behind the emerald green lurks revolutionary red.

A Baku policeman detains a protester, one of 150 arrested last weekend in Azerbaijan, the first former Soviet Republic to experience democracy protests since the Tunisia revolt. REUTERS/Orhan Orhanov

In this season of revolution, a St. Patrick’s Day parade could be hijacked by democracy protesters.

So city officials, who routinely clog streets with their motorcades, declared that in the interests of avoiding clogged streets, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade would not be held. The Irish Business Club gamely offered a substitute – an indoor song fest.

Russia’s rulers are not the only ones to worry about St. Patrick-the-Subversive. Two days after Moscow, Shanghai officials also banned their annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

In Moscow, a common dinner party game is to look at the area of the former Soviet Union and debate which of the 15 countries are most vulnerable to an Arab-style democracy revolt.

Although Russia’s ruling party had a lackluster showing in elections on Sunday, the general belief is that Russia is safe for authoritarianism, for now.

In a poll conducted nationwide last month, 49 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied and ready to participate in a protest, a jump from 32 percent in December. But Russia’s oil is selling at $115 a barrel – 50 percent over last year’s price. This price spike has been perfectly timed for Prime Minister Putin. Facing parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year, he has plenty of rubles to jolly voters with higher pensions and state salaries.

In Russia, the Kremlin worries less about a youth revolt and than about a pensioners’ revolt.

In a reverse of Egyptian demographics, one million young Russians enter the job market each year, while 2.5 million workers exit, either through death or retirement.

The vulnerable parts of the former Soviet Union are the ‘stans’ – the six republics with young, Muslim-majority populations that take some inspiration from Cairo.

Last month, Kazakhstan, the richest and most economically successful, scheduled a surprise presidential election for April 3. The idea is to lock in the genuine popularity of the nation’s long running president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in five years. Tajikstan is still recovering from a civil war in the mid-1990s that claimed 100,000 lives. Turkmenistan probably has enough oil and gas billions to pacify its relatively small population of five million.

The two most vulnerable are Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, two countries with entrenched ruling families, high corruption, high unemployment and large, young populations. Transparency International’s corruption index places them at the bottom of the barrel – Azerbaijan at 134 and Uzbekistan at 172.

Uzbekistan has been ruled since 1989 by Islam Karimov. Now he is 73 and without a male heir, a key obstacle to creating a political dynasty in Central Asia. State controls, monopolies and corruption have retarded economic development and fostered huge income gaps, pushing many of Uzbekistan’s 27 million people to look for jobs elsewhere.

Azerbaijan has been run by the Aliyevs for the last 42 years — first by Heydar Aliyev, who started the dynasty in 1969 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.
Currently, his son Ilham runs this oil and gas rich nation on the Caspian with the title of president. Critics say a more historically accurate title would be “Khan.”

On Friday and Saturday, the protests started, spread by Facebook and Twitter. Azeri police moved in fast, arresting 150 young people around Baku’s Fountain Square, including anyone wearing a red T-shirt.

There will be no St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Baku.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Saint Patrick: Subversive to Moscow?”

  1. David Irby says:

    I live in Ireland and have published scholarly pieces on St Patrick. And I know that he is very much admired and venerated by Orthodox Christians, which is unusual for a Western saint. You have nothing about that in your article. But I think that Patrick could be “subversive” in another way; that is to the disunity between the Churches of the East and the West.

    The Muslim ex-soviet republics you mentioned have no interest in Patrick either religiously or as an excuse to get drunk. The Russians banned Moscow’s parade for the wrong reasons, of course. But in the long run such bans could be beneficial insofar as they may re-focus Russians on what the REAL Patrick is all about.

    And part of me wishes that in other countries (especially Ireland and the USA) all of this boozy Paddywhackery could be cut back by some means too. But there is no hope of that. Still, while religion in general is on the decline here, pilgrimages (often barefoot) up Cough Patrick and the fasting at “St Patrick’s Purgatory” at Lough Derg remain as crowded as ever.

    Our large Polish population takes part in these events, so perhaps the Russians won’t be far behind them.

  2. Pyotr says:

    Not only st.patrick’s but even st.Valentine’s is subversive for our paranoid government.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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