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A Sickly Constitution

Russians do have the right to assemble peacefully, at least on paper. From openDemocracy.

by Maryana Torocheshnikova 28 April 2010

MOSCOW | Strategy-31 is a spontaneous civic movement that, since 31 July, has regularly held protest meetings in defense of freedom of assembly in Russia.  They are held on the 31st day of every month with 31 days.  In Moscow they take place in Triumfalnaya Square. They are intended to promote and defend the right to hold peaceful demonstrations, as enshrined in article 31 of the Russian Constitution.

 

There was a demonstration in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on 31 March against restrictions on the freedom of assembly.  The 82-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki group, Lyudmila Alexeeva, received a severe blow to the head that day.  Eduard Limonov, one of the leaders of the Other Russia coalition, was put in a holding cell, as were Konstantin Kosyakin, coordinator of the opposition movement Oborona [Defense], and 51 others.   For the human rights activists and members of the opposition, that was how the day ended.  However, on 31 May they will be demonstrating once again in defense of Article 31, which states that “Citizens of the Russian Federation have the right to assemble peacefully without arms, hold meetings, rallies and demonstrations, marches and pickets.”

 

On 31 March Lyudmila Alexeeva was not actually part of what has now become a traditional demonstration on the 31st of the month. Because of the bombings in the Moscow metro she broke with tradition.  Still wearing her “Strategy-31” badge, she went to the Park Kultury metro station rather than to Triumfalnaya.  As she wrote in her blog,  “I’m ashamed that I’m going against tradition and won’t be in the square on 31 March. But because of the mourning I’d be ashamed to go there too.”

 

Alexeeva might have had cause to suspect there would be acts of provocation, but certainly not during the wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of the tragedy. The attack by Konstantin Pereverzev, who called himself a “Russian Orthodox patriot” shocked witnesses. In front of a large group of people, including police and journalists, he hit Alexeeva on the head shouting, “Still alive, you old bitch?”

 

A criminal case has been opened against Pereverzev for “assault and actual bodily harm”, but observers call this incident significant. Alexeeva herself said, “He was acting alone, but under orders. This was a warning. Next time I may be hit even harder.” Many commentators are quite clear that Pereverzev was not acting on his own initiative but at the behest of someone connected with the authorities and the FSB.  This theory may sound ridiculous, but the first reaction of the police to the attack was revealing. It was not they who grabbed hold of Alexeeva’s attacker, but other human rights activists who, like Alexeeva, had brought flowers to lay at the scene.

 

While these events were unfolding, two other founders of the Strategy-31 movement, Eduard Limonov and Konstantin Kosyakin, were already sitting at the police station, waiting while the report on their administrative offense was drawn up. Their offense, according to the police, was to come out on the square on 31 March.  Both men were seized and taken away to the police van before they had had time to do anything or show any evidence of wanting to hold an unsanctioned rally. Limonov has not managed to be in Triumfalnaya Ploshchad for more than five minutes during any of the Strategy-31 rallies.

 

A LAW OR A SUGGESTION?

 

The trouble is that not many Russians have even heard of Article 31 in the Constitution. Thanks to Hollywood, it seems, young and middle-aged Russians are far better informed about the meaning of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

 

“Actually our officials are unused to being guided by the Constitution, or even by the law,” Alexeeva says. “They’re more used to orders or requests from the top. Stability in the city is what the people in charge want. The way they see it is that everyone should stay at home and keep quiet. They don’t understand that stability is when people take to the streets legally and peacefully to tell the authorities what they want and the authorities pay attention to their demands and try to satisfy them. Then there is law and order in the city and the state. But this is too complex for our officials at all levels, even the highest. They prefer using any excuse, even the most idiotic and ridiculous, to simply refuse permission, so that they can then justify to themselves breaking up the meetings.”

 

The Moscow authorities have not approved a single Strategy-31 protest. Formally the officials can’t be faulted  – every time the organizers submit notification of a meeting it turns out that some other event has already been planned: the Choose Health festival or the Winter Amusements public holiday, for example. Officials shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in sympathy, then offer some other location for the meeting. Taras Shevchenko embankment for a march, or Bolotnaya Ploshchad for people simply wishing to hold a meeting.

 

But these locations don’t suit the organizers. Taras Shevchenko embankment has the river on one side and factories on the other. Bolotnaya Ploshchad (between a park, a canal, and office buildings) is also quite deserted.

 

The demonstration organizers don’t like any of these places:  they persevere in holding their meetings in Triumfalnaya, which is why they get beaten up.  Every Strategy-31 protest in Moscow has been broken up by the police and OMON [special forces]. Protesters are arrested and taken away in their dozens to police stations. On New Year’s Eve 2009 the police went as far as detaining Alexeeva, who came to the demonstration dressed as the Snow Maiden, but wearing her Strategy-31 badge.

 

There has, however, been some progress recently: the Moscow authorities proposed that Strategy-31 should go to Pushkinskaya Ploshchad, rather than Triumfalnaya. The organizers rejected the proposal. In an interview with the newspaper Izvestiya Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov commented: “Triumfalnaya Ploshchad is small, so when several thousand people announce a demonstration there, we can see that this will create serious traffic problems. We have to ensure the safety of the protesters themselves. If there is a danger of too many people at the demonstration, this could affect the health and safety of our citizens. We don’t ban the meeting, we move it to another location. Why do the ‘dissidents’ insist on Triumfalnaya? So that arguments with the authorities always turn into conflict, with the location as the excuse: ‘See how they persecute us.’ They’re not interested in getting permission for the protest, but in having it banned. They want a row.”

 

But Triumfalnaya Square is important for the organizers of these protests in defense of the freedom of assembly.  Limonov, the ideologist behind Strategy-31 and head of the executive committee of the Other Russia coalition, explains: “We’ve never been permitted to hold our protest meeting in Triumfalnaya Square, but other organizations go there. It’s not right. We aren’t demanding the impossible, we simply want to be there for an hour or an hour and a half. We’ve created a new tradition – and we demand respect. Respect costs nothing. It’s not we who are creating this tension over Triumfalnaya. It’s the federal government and the city authorities who are stirring up this fear and panic.”

 

Incidentally, in discussing events on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad on the 31st of the month, Luzhkov avoided mentioning the fact that similar restrictive measures are not applied to the organizers of pro-Kremlin youth movement meetings. For example, the application by Young Russia for 31 March stated that there would be up to 5,000 people at the meeting. The organizers of Strategy-31 (who were refused) were applying for permission for 800.

 

But even when they permit other meetings (not related to Strategy-31), the authorities airily manipulate the figures. If numbers exceed the stated amount by only two or three people, protesters are often accused of breaking the law and arrested.

 

Ending up in a police bus and then at the police station is perhaps the lesser evil. Arrests at Strategy-31 protests in Moscow are rarely nonviolent. Human rights activists have drawn attention on several occasions to the excessive brutality of law-enforcement officers when they are breaking up public events. In their annual report devoted to the problem of freedom of assembly in Russia, researchers of the civic movement Groza point out that: “The police regularly use special equipment against protesters without justification. But the facts surrounding the use of violence are not properly investigated and those who are guilty of unjustified and disproportionate use of force are not brought to book. The intimidation of peaceful protesters has meant that many people have turned away from this form of voicing their problems. There are frequent media reports of the regional police being armed with water cannons to disperse public meetings, and of their training exercises using special equipments and weapons. Infringements of the law by the authorities and the law-enforcement bodies almost always remain unpunished, which allows them to feel that they are above the law, and to go on meting out rough justice to protesters and organizers of public events.”

 

SPREADING TO THE REGIONS

 

But the number of protesters increases every time Strategy-31 holds a protest meeting. These meetings are now not only in Moscow, but in dozens of other Russian regions, too. 

 

“Strategy-31 has the support of our entire regional organization,” says Nadezhda Tabakova, a member of the Yabloko party from Yaroslavl. “Meetings are not prohibited here at present, but I, for example, was arrested with the Constitution in my hands. In the name of public safety.  In Russia you can apparently kill someone with the Constitution. They let you on to the embankment with beer, but not with the Constitution. On the 31st we take to the streets, and every time more and more people join us.”

 

On 31 March Strategy-31 protests were held in 33 cities. These included St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Vladivostok, Ivanovo, Kaliningrad, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Perm. In some places, like Petersburg and Moscow, the protests were broken up by OMON and the police. In cities where the leadership is traditionally more loyal, such as Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk, the officials put no obstacles in the way of the organizers of public meetings.

 

But getting through the notification procedures successfully is no guarantee that a public meeting will go ahead peacefully. The report Freedom of Assembly in Russia notes: “During the meetings, representatives of the authorities complain about the slogans and the ‘inconvenient’ symbols; they arrest representatives of ‘undesirable’ organizations.” In Vladivostok, which joined Strategy-31 at the beginning of the year, protesters were forbidden to use the poster “Putler kaput!”

 

“The authorities got very worked up about this poster, and the Prosecutor’s Office decided it was illegal,” says Vasily Avchenko, journalist for the Vladivostok office of Novaya Gazeta. “At first our organisers tried to make a joke of it, saying that Putler was a businessman in the automobile industry who had gone out of business because of the rise in duties and was now kaput. But the prosecutors have a strange sense of humor: they went through the entire database and found that there wasn’t a single person called Putler in the Primorsky region. They maintained it was a reference to the Prime Minister [Vladimir Putin], and that it was not funny. So people don’t use this poster anymore. But they use other posters, such as ‘Vovochka, leave the classroom!’ ”

 

Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Vanguard of Red Youth movement, believes that every time citizens take to the street with specific political, economic, and social demands, it represents an important step toward the development of democracy and proof that there are active people who care in Russia. “Unfortunately the authorities today do everything to encourage an apolitical view of life, especially among young people, and to remove any inclination to take part in political meetings. So every meeting is in principle a small victory for civil society, which is still weak, but already exists in Russia.”

 

The organizers of the Strategy-31 meetings in Russian cities represent the most varied political and public movements. “ ‘Observe the Constitution,’ the message from our Soviet past, has now become relevant,” asserts the secretary of the Omsk Civic Coalition, Viktor Korb. “The possibilities afforded by this disaffection with life in a false imitation of democracy are potentially massive. Unfortunately, our civil society is still fragmented, but Strategy-31 offers the possibility of uniting on the basis of a common idea.”

 

The authorities are keeping a watchful eye on developments. There is serious discussion about possible amendments to the law that would further complicate the lives of organizers of public meetings officials consider undesirable. There is, for example, a proposal to introduce a notification procedure for one-off pickets, and to allow officials to ban a public meeting on the grounds of “insufficient information.” The Moscow police have gone even further, proposing that the slightest infringement of the law should see all protesters being put in prison for 15 days. However, this initiative has yet to find any support in the Russian government.

Maryana Torocheshnikova is a journalist with Radio Liberty in Moscow. Home page photo by Igor Podgorny. This is a partner post from openDemocracy.

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