20 years under Putin: a timeline

On November 17, 2020, two draft laws were submitted for consideration to the State Duma by Dmitry Vyatkin, a member of the United Russia party. The bills will amend existing legislation regulating protests in Russia, adding new requirements for obtaining a permit for public assemblies, restricting where protest can take place, and labeling more public actions—specifically single-person pickets and flash mobs—as forms of public assembly. Taken together, these changes will further restrict the already limited ways in which Russians can protest.

 

Moscow, Bolotnaya Square, May 6, 2015: A single-person picket is held by the Russian journalist Alexander Ryklin who holds a poster that reads: “At this place, on May 6, 2012, police attacked a peaceful demonstration.” The picket lasted only a few moments, as Ryklin was immediately detained by the police. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The right to assemble is guaranteed by Article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In practice, however, this right is severely limited both de jure and de facto by federal legislation, an array of regional and local regulations, and an opaque system of bureaucracy. As IMR’s March report on protest trends noted: “Today, there exists a web of criminal and administrative laws that punish participation in unsanctioned protests while also making it incredibly difficult for organizers to receive a permit for protests.” Participating in or organizing unsanctioned protest is potentially punishable by significant fines, administrative detention, and even criminal prosecution. In addition, unsanctioned protests are often violently dispersed by riot police. 

The risks of unsanctioned protest make obtaining a permit crucial to ensure the safety of participants and organizers. One bill proposed by United Russia on November 17 will introduce new hurdles to this already complicated process by adding more application requirements to the ones already outlined in the 2004 law “On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets.” Currently, organizers are required to file a notice with local authorities no more than 15 but no fewer than 10 days before an event. This notice must include information about the event (date, time, place, estimated number of participants), the type and purpose of the event, the organizer’s name and contact information, methods for ensuring public safety and medical aid, and any sound equipment intended for use during the event.

Formally, this information is not submitted for government “approval” but simply to inform authorities about citizens’ intent to exercise their right to assembly. In reality, as OVD-Info (a grassroots organization that monitors arrests during protest in Russia) has noted, protests can be and are refused permission for almost any reason based on perceived problems with the information listed in the permit application. Authorities have refused permission for protests because of issues with the filing date, because of unclear definitional distinctions between pickets and marches, because they deemed the reason for protest to be unconstitutional, or because the event was set to take place at a time or place already assigned for some other activity (street cleaning or repair, etc.).  

If the bill is adopted, organizers will be obliged to include bank account information in their petition for a protest permit. Not only is this information unnecessary—most protest events do not require significant expenses or the fundraising of money, it suggests that protests are somehow “financed,” fueling the state-promoted narrative that protest participants are paid by anti-Russia forces like George Soros and Hillary Clinton. Based on established practices, claims that bank account information is incomplete or inaccurate will undoubtedly be used as another reason to deny a permit, and revealing personal financial information could be used to more closely scrutinize the activities of protest organizers.

The legal space for protest is rapidly shrinking as authorities find more ways to limit when, where, and how people can voice their demands. 

The second bill proposed last week, which will amend the same 2004 law on protest, prohibits protests near offices of emergency services such as the police, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or the Federal Security Service. This restriction is justified in the name of maintaining public safety. Limiting where protests can take place is already a well-established tactic used to restrict freedom of assembly. As OVD-Info points out, 76 regions in Russia prohibit public assemblies near religious sites, schools, hospitals, and military facilities. Many of these laws, as the Constitutional Court ruled earlier this summer, are vague, often not listing the exact distance protesters must maintain from the object or the reason for such a prohibition.

The bill also targets two of the remaining accessible forms of protest: single-person pickets and flash mobs. At present, single person pickets—where people gather one at a time, distanced from each other, to silently hold up a sign in front of a particular place—do not require the securing of prior permission from authorities. Because of their informality and ease of organization, single-person pickets are a popular form of political expression in Russia. When many people want to participate in a single-person picket, a queue is organized so that people can wait their turn to participate without violating the laws on protest (or impeding car or pedestrian traffic in accordance with laws on public order).

It is this practice—waiting in line to participate in a single-person picket—that the bill proposes to define as a “public assembly,” which would henceforth require prior permission. The bill would also deem the “mass simultaneous presence or movement of people in public spaces” to be a public assembly in need of prior permission. This part of the proposed amendments seems to target flash mobs, which are used in Russia to demonstrate support for specific persecuted figures or for issues like gay rights. The bill’s purpose is clearly to capture under an ever-expanding net of regulations two practices that today remain some of the only accessible means by which Russians can protest, futher shrinking the already incredibly limited space for public expression.

Despite the prevailing myth about Russians’ passivity and reticence to demonstrate, protests are neither rare nor futile in Russia. As we saw last summer in Moscow, tens of thousands of people are willing to risk bodily harm and arrest to attend unsanctioned rallies. The effectiveness of recent environmental protests in the Arkhangelsk region in Russia’s north and Bashkortostan Republic in its south, which produced concessions from both regional and federal authorities, surprised many observers.

The legal space for protest is rapidly shrinking as authorities find more ways to limit when, where, and how people can voice their demands. But as the over 100 days of protest in Khabarovsk show, restricting legally available means of public assembly won’t silence people’s voices.

 

Yana Gorokhovskaia is a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.   

Russia under Putin

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