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Hundreds of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators traded dueling chants in Times Square Sunday as the conflict in Gaza stirred strong emotions in the streets of New York.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators held signs and chanted, “From the river to the sea, Gaza will be free.” After a large pro-Israel group arrived, and the two continents began shouting at each other from across the busy interaction. Demonstrators flooded the street, stopping traffic and spurring police to push demonstrators back onto the sidewalk. Police then directed the pro-Israel group to move down the street.
Midway through the word, Husneia Qurbani took a moment to think. Then she finished triumphantly: “B-A-N-I.” She smiled, pleased, and said a few words in her native Pashtu.
“She says she just learned how to spell her name last week,” said Yalda Atif, a fellow Afghan expatriate who stepped in to translate at the Queens-based non-profit Women for Afghan Women, where Qurbani takes English lessons.
Qurbani, 58, the wife of an Afghan political refugee, left Afghanistan during the civil war that led to the Taliban’s rise to power. She has been living in New York for over two decades, but she never learned English. As a stay-at-home mother of five, she said, she did not see the need.
“I had never taken any classes of anything before,” she said through her translator. “I had never been to school, so it did not even cross my mind for a long time.”
A small, but passionate group of Russian opposition activists is asking emigres in New York to deface their ballots in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections in an act of symbolic resistance.
The technique is called “Nacht-Nacht”: Voters mark their ballot with a large “X” or write an off-color word or phrase. In Russian, “Nacht-Nacht” is an obscene play on words intended to send a rude message to the ballot counters.
“It is a way of saying, ‘Go to hell’ to those in power,” said Natalia Pelevine, a Russian activist based in New Jersey, “saying, ‘We are not voting for any of you, we don’t believe in any of you.’”
Pelevine is the founder of the recently formed Democratic Russia Committee, a group of opposition activists in the New York area that is leading the protest movement pegged to the elections. The group has been energized by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s planned second grab for the Russian presidency.
The Nacht-Nacht technique builds on a tradition in Russia that has been around since the Soviet era, when elections were even more blatantly fixed.
“There is this quite strong sense, almost a tradition, that a protest vote is often more effective than a vote against,” said Mark Galeotti, chair of the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. “Let’s be honest, there is no rival political party that is going to challenge the United Russia party.”
But despite the dismal chance of a win for any opposition party, activists want as many Russians as possible to turn out for the vote – including the thousands of Russian citizens living in the New York area.
A week before election day, Pelevine, her mother and two other activists went to Brighton Beach to encourage Russians to vote. Under the rumbling elevated track of the Q train, they handed out fliers with instructions on where to vote – and a suggestion to deface the ballots, or, at least, cast a vote for an opposition party.
Brighton Beach will house one of two polling stations in New York – the other is at the Russian Consulate on East 91st street. Representatives from the Russian Embassy would not disclose how many voters they expect in New York, nor how many have turned up in past elections.
So far, Pelevine has not seen the level of involvement she would like from the Russian community here. But experts say political apathy is typical of Russian culture, including the diaspora.
Nina Khrushcheva, a Russia scholar and professor at The New School, said that even though recent polls suggest Russians are growing tired of Putin, the opposition is unlikely to go mainstream any time soon.
“Change has never presented anything that has worked well for the general public,” said Kruscheva. “We would rather be oppressed than naked running around in dungeons for freedom.”
Kruscheva acknowledged that the opposition is gaining slight momentum now that Putin is dropping in the popularity polls. Pelevine has seen a similar trend in New York, and believes a growing
number of people are interested in what her group has to say.
She calls them the “closet opposition.”