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December 10, 2009
Activists say freedom of assembly under assault in Russia

Moscow dissenters’ march. Photo: flickr user mosdave

Worldfocus researcher Christine Kiernan wrote last month about several recent detentions of Russian activists in Moscow.  For more about the issue, she talks to Allison Gill, director of the Russia office of Human Rights Watch, about freedom of assembly in Russia.

Worldfocus: Police detained protesters last month in front of the detention center where opposition activist Eduard Limonov was being held. Has he been released?

Allison Gill: Yes, he was only held for ten days. It was an administrative detention.

What’s interesting to me is the real vitriol, vigor, with which minor protests are handled by authorities. Ten days of administration arrest for nonviolently turning out on the streets to tell the government something seems disproportionate.

Worldfocus: The right to freedom of assembly is enshrined in article 31 of the Russian Constitution.  What is the state of this right in practice?

Allison Gill: I can mostly speak to Moscow because I’m here. It plays out a bit differently in different places. The trend is one to restrict assembly, and when we’re talking about assembly let’s assume as our baseline peaceful nonviolent gatherings. Under international standards governments have the right to regulate assembly but don’t have the right in peacetime to cut off the ability for citizens to peacefully assemble.

[In Russia] the language of regulation is one of informing and agreeing. You need to inform the government about the place for assembly and then come to an agreement on a time and place. It’s really clever. It makes it easy for the government to say we don’t restrict ability of people to assemble.

In reality, Moscow authorities tend to be quite restrictive. They’ll say that you can do it in some completely irrelevant place on the outskirts of the city, or deep in a park where no one will see you. They restrict big assemblies from the more central places. They’ll assign the protesters to a place where people assembling don’t want to be, or they’ll say that the place they want is booked already. There are lots of easily mobilizable pro-Kremlin groups. They can snap their fingers and you’ll get Nashi [a pro-Kremlin youth group] out with their flags.

There are different regulations for marches, for movements of people. For these, permits are almost never granted.

Worldfocus: Why is the Russian government so opposed to letting people assemble?

Allison Gill: In a way it defies all logic. You’re talking about relatively small gatherings in a city of 10 to 15 million. This is a huge, bustling, busy metropolis. I understand why authorities would take measures to prohibit, to prevent, traffic interruption. Traffic in Moscow is a nightmare. Why they go to such lengths to restrict relatively small groups from gathering on sidewalks defies logic. The tactics are so disproportionate, the police response so large, it ends up drawing more attention than they would otherwise.

For example, take the Dissenters March in 2007. It was a big deal. The Presidential elections were coming up in May. It was obvious Putin’s candidate would get elected. I was there. There were 200 marchers, maybe 300 if you want to be generous. There were thousands of police. They had flown in special forces, special operations, from all over the country. It was a multi-thousand dollar policing operation. Thousands of police for 200 marchers. It’s completely crazy.

Worldfocus: Does the government see the protesters as a genuine threat?

Allison Gill: They pay a lot of attention to things that could potentially mobilize public dissent. It’s almost like a real allergy to any kind of public criticism, or public display that the government is weak or doesn’t enjoy full support, any calls for accountability.

Worldfocus: Who are the protesters?

Allison Gill: The group Solidarnost that Limonov is part of is a motley crew of unlikely bedfellows: Kasparov [Gary Kasporov, Russia chess grandmaster and Chairman of the United Civil Front], Lyudmila Alekseevna, chair of the Moscow Helsinki group, and the National Bolshevik Party. It’s a weird mix. These are not people who would ordinarily share a platform. But they share a larger sense of dissatisfaction, of being disenfranchised, of not having effective opportunities to speak out and shape policy. Who joins protests varies depending on issue. There’s a contingent of people that are unhappy, former Soviet dissidents who risked their lives, families, and health to protest a form of government they found unconscionable. To see the fruit of their sacrifice wasted is very painful.

Worldfocus: Limonov and his supporters hold protests bimonthly at Triumphalnaya Square to exercise their right to assemble. How many people do the gatherings draw?

Allison Gill: At most I’d say 100. They want regularly to establish a tradition of meeting, to make it not something out of the ordinary but a tradition that people gather and speak their mind.

Worldfocus: Looking at Russian history, is this tradition out of the ordinary?

Allison Gill:It is and it isn’t. In the current context it’s the last resort for people who feel they have no other avenues… There’s a tradition in Russia of people appealing directly to the tsar. I don’t know if this comes from that at all. So often it’s just about getting noticed.

The dissenters marchers don’t enjoy a lot of popular support, partly because they don’t have normal channels of reaching constituents to develop policy platforms. It’s all about trying to get heard.

Worldfocus: Is there an opposition in Russia?

Allison Gill: The party system is incredibly weak. Votes aren’t won based on whether or not you appeal to the electorate. Politicians are pretty indifferent… The opposition has been so squarely sidelined. In the case of Limonov and Kasparov, so much goes into logistics – how they get heard, how they have meetings, how they arrange a party congress. They pay more attention to that rather than what they say when they get a forum… The opposition is pretty weak.

Worldfocus: What is the importance of the right to assemble?

Allison Gill: It’s a basic, fundamental right and key to a functioning democracy.

– Christine Kiernan

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