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Putin Signs Draconian Law Restricting Freedom of Assembly; People Assemble Anyway

Last Tuesday, the Russian State Duma voted in favor of a bill to increase the fees for unsanctioned meetings one hundred and fifty fold, a draconian move on a landscape with already limited respect for the freedom of assembly. The legislature’s upper house signed the bill the next day and Putin signed it into law on Friday.

Supporters of the law argue that this move is an attempt to bring Russian legislation in compliance with European standards. In a letter to the Financial Times, for example, Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov wrote that in introducing the law the Russian government is “striving for legislation that is comparable to the regulation of political protests in the west” and is “inspired by the European example.” 

However, the law—passed only days before a major opposition protest that was held Tuesday—is clearly targeted against the protest movement and is anticipated to be applied selectively in an attempt to stifle dissent. The fines applied in the case of arrest—up to $32,100 for organizing an unsanctioned event and up to $9,000 for participating in one—would present a paralyzing financial burden for a middle-class Russian. Some of the activists I have met with here say that under no circumstances can they afford to pay such an amount and that it’s going to become impossible to organize events.

The Presidential Council of Human Rights—of which quite a few Russia Project grantees are members—has called the law unconstitutional, arguing that it violates Article 31, the freedom of assembly. On Friday the Council issued a statement arguing that “the main defect of the law is that it essentially criminalizes a procedure that is a basic constitutional right—the right to peacefully assemble.”

Moreover, the language of the law is vague and can target any organizer of an event that results in disorderly conduct. Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, has pointed out that this could include a wedding that turns into a brawl; the Presidential Council on Human Rights noted that this could include a group of theater-goers standing outside of a box office during intermission. In a country where the practice of bribing police officers to avoid arrest or formal charges borders on standard operating procedure, this aspect of the legislation provides law enforcement officers with more opportunity to arbitrarily apply the law for their own financial gain.

Beyond the direct implications of the enactment of the law, it is being applied in response to a protest movement, which is already struggling to keep its footing and develop a clear, constructive agenda. The protest movement peaked in February before the March presidential elections, but has recently lost momentum. Many I met with in Moscow criticized the movement for being too centered on protesting the return of Putin rather than addressing more systematic problems in the Russian political system. Some are suspicious of the agendas of the movement’s leaders, and point to their less than rights-based political beliefs.

At the same time, there is a growing concern that links between civil society and the government are becoming even fewer and far between, and laws like this one are leading to a situation where there are no efficient mechanisms for the government to be held accountable to its citizens. Recently, many members of the President’s Council on Human Rights have declared their intention to leave the Council in protest of Putin’s return to power, and two independently-minded, prominent media figures were ousted from their jobs on Thursday. Putin recently appointed a historical revisionist as the new Minister of Culture. On Monday morning, investigators searched the houses of the country’s major opposition leaders, seizing $1.2 million dollars in cash from Ksenia Sobchak’s home and demanding the activists come in for questioning. On such a fragile landscape, the new law runs the risk of severing any ties between civil society and the state.

On the other hand, perhaps these repressive moves are providing a particularly necessary impetus to keep the protest movement motivated and active. Today, several thousand protesters braved the pouring rain to protest Putin’s presidency as well as the electoral laws that brought about his return to power. As of 8 p.m. Tuesday evening, police reported no violence and no arrests.

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