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Russians put strength of law on rallies to test

June 29, 2012, 15:06 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, June 29 (Itar-Tass) — The law raising penalties for violations at rallies and introducing restrictions for participants in and the organizers of mass street demonstrations began to be put to test as soon as it took effect. In their attempts to see how strong the law really is some have dared to openly make fun of the authorities. The fears of the law’s opponents, who had warned the adoption would bring about some absurd situations, are coming true. However, the affair does not always look entirely absurd – news about the first victims of the revised law on rallies started pouring in before long.

Scandalous amendments to the law on assemblies, rallies, street processions and pickets took effect less than three weeks ago despite active resistance from the Opposition and civil society. Since then cities across Russia have seen very similar developments. Russians seem to be trying to outwit each other in filing requests for strolls, bus tours and shopping rounds. However, some demonstrations evoked the authorities’ reaction in strict compliance with the law.

In Nizhni Novgorod, a group of witty and resourceful local residents met at the Monument to the Goat. They purchased some loafs of bread and then proceeded to the city center. Police at the entrance to the local government compound read the posters the demonstrators were carrying “We are going to buy some bread, but the mayor’s office is against this,” and “Going for bread in a company of more than three is disallowed!” to see nothing wrong and let them approach the building of the local authorities.

Collective shopping rounds are one of the actions launched under a project called Living by the Law, with which Nizhni Novgorod opposition activists wished to demonstrate the absurdity of the newly introduced piece of legislation. With this aim they have begun to file notifications on the smallest occasions. However, the city authorities responded that the declared purpose of “buying a loaf of bread in the company of friends and thereby complying with the requirements of the new law on rallies” runs counter to the law, which says that the procession is expected to draw attention to some problems.

For their part Nizhni Novgorod people submitted another fifteen applications for permission to stage various absurd actions. One of them was called “Waiting for a bus at the Sherbinki-2 bus stop.” The declared purpose is to “wait for the arrival of a bus in the company of unknown people and thereby to comply with the requirements of the new law on rallies.”

The greatest response followed when a journalist in Yekaterinburg staged a one-man excursion in the company of police. Rostislav Zhuravlyov, a correspondent of the Aktualno news agency, said that he and his friends back on June 9 had filed a request for permission to “mass simultaneous presence and movement along the city’s streets” on June 24 for the purpose of seeing local tourist attractions. He and his friends have since forgotten about it.

“At 08:00 in the morning a phone call from the police woke me up. They politely asked me if the stroll would really take place. At first I did not believe them and thought it was some kind of hoax. The further events were surely worthy of Orwell or Kafka,” Zhuravlyov said in his blog.

In front of his apartment building he was met by police. The application said the participants in the excursion would board a trolleybus to go to the Architectural Academy stop, from where they would proceed to the monument to Vladimir Lenin. So the police asked Zhuravlyov to board a trolleybus. At the monument, where “a ten-minute talk about Vladimir Lenin’s contribution to the history of Russia” was scheduled to take place, he saw another three police. At that moment Zhuravlyov decided that there should be a limit to absurdity. He declared that the event was over and let the police go and dedicate themselves entirely to their job – that of maintaining law and order.

As one can see in the video clip from Yekaterinburg, both sides were perfectly aware that they were making fun of each other, just a little bit. However, most cases in which the new law has been applied are no reasons for laugh. On June 9, the first day the amendments were in action, an activist of the movement Solidarity, Oleg Kozlovsky, and his friend Vsevolod Chernozub appeared in Moscow’s Pushkin Square with a quite harmless poster to have been detained at once for unauthorized picketing. They were promptly dubbed the first victims arrested under the law on rallies. Now they are faced with court hearings and a fine of up to 20,000 rubles.

Last Monday, an activist of the Other Russia, Marat Salakhiyev, was sentenced to seven days under arrest and a 20,000 ruble fine for participation in two pickets near the Novokuznetskaya metro station. Police decided that the poster Russia without Putin is “anti-presidential and a call for the overthrow of the basis of the constitutional system.”

In St. Petersburg on June 25 the police did not allow Michael Jackson fans to stage a memorial action in front of the US consulate, and the organizers were registered as abusers under the code of administrative offenses. In the previous two years the memorial action in St. Petersburg saw no such incidents.

According to the chief of the law service of the Communist Party, Vadim Solovyov, both civilian and police authorities in Moscow have been firmly instructed to keep an eye “on all initiatives by citizens.” The Communists are drafting a query to the Constitutional Court over the law on rallies. In the meantime they have been closely monitoring the situation.

Political scientist Igor Bunin has described the latest events as laughable and running counter to the spirit of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech and assembly. “The Constitution has article 55.3, which says: ‘the rights and freedoms of the individual and the citizen can be limited by a federal law only to the extent that is necessary for the purpose of protecting the basis of the constitutional system, morality, health, rights and legal interests of other persons, maintaining the country’s defenses and the security of the state’,” the expert is quoted by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily as saying. “This is precisely the article that the authorities have been referring to in order to find excuses for their actions and they will keep doing so. That article allows for applying the law. But in reality everybody understands that the whole affair is grotesque and an anecdote.”

Bunin has no doubts that the amendments adopted to the legislation on rallies will be canceled by the European Court. The Constitutional Court is a very different matter. “The Constitutional Court will override the amendments only in case it is the wish of the Kremlin. If the authorities decide that negotiations with the Opposition should get underway.” 

MOSCOW, June 29