Some of the most recent protest movements in Russia – and the police actions in response to them – are summarised in this guest post from the PRAXIS CENTRE, MOSCOW (part of the Global Labour Institute network).
Dissatisfaction and moods of protest have again been gathering in Russia in recent years, in the period since the authorities repressed the wave of mass protests of 2011-13.
A powerful impulse for the protests came from the reform of the pension system, as a result
of which the retirement age was raised by five years. As a result, in the autumn of last year, rallies and other demonstrations against the reform broke out across the whole country.
Dissatisfaction was also triggered by corruption, which runs through the whole Russian political system; ecological problems; and the absence of democracy or of any prospects for the overwhelming majority of the population.
In these conditions, the authorities toughened their policy of repression, not only against activists but also against anyone who was just not indifferent to the situation. There was pressure in the form of police action and fabricated legal cases.
At the same time new repressive laws were passed, the most striking of which was the recently adopted law on the “sovereign internet”, which if implemented could allow the state at any point – even this year – to cut Russia off from the world wide web.
Moreover, in Russia the freedoms of speech and assembly, and the legal immunity of people’s homes, has in effect been destroyed.
Despite all this, more and more people attempt courageously to insist on their rights, as was demonstrated very clearly by events in Moscow over the summer.
On 8 September 2019 there were elections to the Moscow city council. Forces opposed to the current regime decided to use the election campaign not only to get their representatives elected, but also to publicise their views and programmes. But in February 2019, at a meeting in the Presidential Administration’s offices, it was decided not to allow genuine oppositionists on to the Moscow council.
This decision became publicly known only at the end of July. Nevertheless the oppositionists, having decided to honestly observe all legal norms, had begun to campaign and to collect signatures needed for the registration of candidates. Most of them had been successful and had in early July deposited the lists of signatures with the election commission.
However, almost all of the opposition candidates’ registrations were refused on various completely contrived pretexts, and with deliberately fabricated mistakes in expert inspections.
This led to the first spontaneous protests, and a meeting with the unregistered candidates in the centre of Moscow on 14 July turned into a demonstration. About 3000 people marched to the town hall, and to the election commission’s offices. The police did not interfere: only in the evening were some of the unregistered candidates, and other activists, arrested.
Perhaps the way things turned out had taken the authorities by surprise – or perhaps they thought that the best thing was to allow the protest movement to let off steam.
If that was the calculation, it was wrong. On 27 July, a demonstration on the streets of Moscow that had not been given permission by the authorities – although under the
constitution no such permission is required – was attended by no less than 10,000 people. People were angered not only by the assault on their right to vote, but on the assault on their rights in general.
A huge contingent of police arrived in central Moscow to deal with the demonstration, including the OMON [riot police], the Federal National Guard, black marias, and even vehicles for dismantling barricades. The peaceful demonstration was brutally dispersed; 77 people were beaten up and wounded; and 1373 arrested.
The next day, the Mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin claimed that there had been mass disorder – which bore no relation to the truth. And after a further two days, a criminal case was opened under the law on mass disorder.
On 3 August there was a protest march along the Boulevard Ring, which, again, had not been agreed with the authorities. Again, the demonstrators were dispersed by the police: this time 1001 were arrested.
On 10 August another march, this time with permission. Despite the fact that it was the height of the holiday season, about 70,000 people took part. At the end, several thousand marched towards the Presidential Administration; the police dispersed them; 256 were arrested.
The 8 September elections took place with a low turnout. Most of those elected to the council were from United Russia, the pro-government party. The representation of the intra-system
opposition (essentially, branches of the party of power) – the Communist Party and Just Russia [Spravedlivaya Rossiya, led by Sergei Mironov] – was increased, since some voters had supported them in the absence of any genuine opposition. The left-liberal opposition party Yabloko secured four seats on the council.
At the same time, the intimidation of the opposition intensified. A number of the independent election candidates spent several weeks in administrative detention. On 2 September, 18 people were arrested in connection with the legal case on mass disorder; on 14 October, another five; and then one more.
Of these, seven were convicted (six got prison sentences, one a suspended sentence); eight are in pre-trial detention; three are under house arrest; and one, who was released conditionally, has fled the country. Some of these cases are particularly well known:
■ Konstantin Kotov, activist and human rights defender, convicted of repeated breach of the laws on conduct of public meetings. (At the 3 August demonstration, he did not even get as far as taking part: he was arrested as he came out of a metro station and has been sentenced to four years.)
■ Yegor Zhukov, student and one of the unregistered candidates for the Moscow city council. (He is under house arrest, awaiting trial.)
■ Pavel Ustinov, a passer-by who was not on the demonstration. Arrested for no reason by the police and given a one-year suspended sentence.)
Since the prosecution is having a hard time proving cases of mass disorder, they are now bringing charges under different articles of the criminal code, e.g. for attacks on police officers or “extremist” statements on the internet.
There is every reason to believe that the repression will continue. That’s how things worked out after the demonstration at Bolotnaya on 6 May 2012, after which more than 30 people were arrested and tried.
Since then, Putin’s regime has become even more brutal. And it fears mass discontent with its policies. It fears actions on the streets, however peaceful. And so it will take revenge; it will terrorise.
In these conditions, for civil society activists, and for all honest people in Russia who don’t want to put up with the suppression of their rights and freedoms, day in and day out, international solidarity and support are important. Pickets, petitions, days of action, the wide circulation of information about what is happening in Russia – it all matters. Because if human rights are under attack in one place – that means they are under attack everywhere.
■ Gabriel Levy adds: Supporters of the Moscow detainees have a web site here, and an active facebook page (Russian only) here. There’s a political assessment of the opposition activity around the Moscow city council elections, on Open Democracy Russia, here – and some thoughts on those events from a veteran human rights activist here.
There is more about the rich array of protest movements in Russia, and the spiral of repression against them, on the Russian Reader blog. It reported the latest Moscow arrests here, and published a translation of the Mediazona “court schedule” of all the current cases against protesters here.
A glimpse of how the state is terrorising a journalist, who dared to write about a young man killed in a political suicide bombing of a police office, is offered by Open Democracy here.
The resurgence of protest this year in Russia has also produced actions on environmental issues, such as a sit-in at Shiyes in Arkhangelsk region, against a proposed landfill for rubbish brought from Moscow and a remarkable demonstration to defend a park in the oil city of Surgut from developers. Public opinion on climate change – in a country whose president repeatedly questions the science – is changing, partly due to the vicious wildfires in Siberia in the summer. See Greenpeace’s comments here.