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Speakers’ corners in Moscow have not gained expected popularity yet

October 15, 2013, 16:39 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, October 15 (Itar-Tass) - Over the six months in existence Moscow’s two outdoor discussion sites conceived as local equivalents of the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park have not become popular venues for discussions of political and social problems. Experts’ opinions on that score are many and varied.

The idea of creating several sites in Moscow where people would be able to come and speak their mind to anyone who would listen came to light after mass protests in Moscow streets and measures to tighten the rules on public rallies in 2011-2012. The original expectation was all grassroots political activities would drift into the two reserved areas.

In February 2012, Vladimir Putin (the then prime minister of Russia) said in the wake of unrest following oppositional demonstrations, “We should follow in the footsteps of our neighbors in Europe and find some decent place, something like London’s Hyde Park.”

Various options have been discussed on a special web-site of the Moscow Mayor’s Office. The Gorky Park and the Sokolniki Park turned out to be most popular. The Mayor’s Office explained that demonstrators will not have to ask the city authorities for permission to demonstrate there. It will be just enough to file an application with the parks’ management. Up to two thousand people are allowed to gather there at a time.

At first, politically active people welcomed the authorities’ proposal. Oppositional environmental activist Yevgeniya Chirikova said, “If there is a speaker’s corner to complement the constitutional right to assemblies and rallies, it will be just fine.” The pro-rector of the Russian Economic University, political scientist Sergei Markov, who has been in charge of a project for upbringing a new generation of politicians, told ITAR-TASS, “My students and I will be frequent visitors at the parks.”

These days Markov says something very different. “My students and I have never held public demonstrations at speakers’ corners. At a time when there is real freedom of speech in the country there is no need for Hyde Parks.”

Of all the politicians the LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky alone addressed outdoor audiences at such sites on several occasions. Nobody else followed suit.

Co-chairman of the oppositional party RPR-PARNAS, Vladimir Ryzhkov, has told ITAR-TASS in an interview, “Mass protest actions must be pegged to a specific place. If this action of protest is against falsifying election returns, it would be appropriate to stage it closer to the building of the Central Election Commission. If it is a rally against eliminating a forest in the Khimki suburb of Moscow, it is no use going to a special site at the other end of the city. In other words, the place where the rally is to be held is very important. We wish to gather people there where the demonstration will be most effective for achieving the goal set.”

Ryzhkov believes that similar trends have been gaining strength around the world.

“If people wish to protest against big business tycoons, they go and demonstrate on Wall Street, the site of the New York Stock Exchange. If the Greens are going to protest against oil drilling in the Arctic, they go to the Arctic, and not the Sokolniki Park.”

Moscow’s Hyde Parks were quick to borrow a lot from their London counterpart, where, according to tourists, LGBT activists and “urban crazies” speak - in other words, representatives of marginal groups of society. LGBT activists have filed five applications for gatherings at speakers’ corners only to have been refused each time. Last May some LGBT activists did dare come to the park carrying colourful flags. A fight with the nationalists followed.

Markov believes that speakers’ corners do not attract marginal figures for various reasons.

“True, extravagant personalities like to appear in public and to draw attention. But these days they can advertise themselves in the world web just as successfully,” he said.

“As for LGBT activists, in Russia the public’s attitude to such people is so negative that they can stage their processions only in tundra plains in the Arctic,” the deputy chief of the Political Technologies Centre, Boris Makarenko, told ITAR-TASS.

In his opinion the idea of speakers’ corners in large cities does not work. Days after the murder of a 25-year-old Muscovite, local residents took to the streets of the neighborhood, and not some equivalents of Hyde Parks to protest the influx of migrants, the expert said.

From the very moment the special floors for public discussions were established about 200 applications for demonstrations have been filed, and 86 of them were accepted, the press-service of the Gorky Park said.

The media have taken note of a Rally by Lonely Girls and also a meeting of Greenpeace activists in support of their detained colleagues from the Arctic Sunrise ship several days ago. Also, the parks saw demonstrations by the Fund of Christian Businessmen, the society For Gaddafi and his People, and what is not quite accidental, the Moscow Service of Psychological Assistance. But, quite possibly, this is only the beginning of the Hyde Park project.