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‘Crash-Test Democracy’ -- Russian Reporters Highlight Vagaries Of Protest Laws

  • RFE/RL

APPROVED: Pro-Putin supporters rally in Yekaterinburg. (file photo)

APPROVED: Pro-Putin supporters rally in Yekaterinburg. (file photo)

Protesting in support of Vladimir Putin? OK.

Protesting that Barack Obama is the main enemy of Russia? OK.

Protesting for Putin’s resignation? No way.

Political demonstrations in Russia are a fraught matter these days, not to mention arbitrary, as journalists in the country’s fourth-largest city have found.

Nearly two years after President Putin toughened criminal penalties for some forms of public demonstrations, reporters at the news portal 66.ru, in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, set about trying to highlight the vagaries of the new rules.

A law passed in 2014, and another Putin signed two years earlier, followed large-scale demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 against what organizers said were dubious parliamentary elections, as well as the vote that returned Putin to the Kremlin for a third term. They were the largest antigovernment protests in Russia since Putin was first elected in 2000.

The Yekaterinburg local legislature, dominated by lawmakers from the country’s Kremlin-backed ruling party, approved legislation last year that gave the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, where the city is located, discretion to approve the nature of such protests.

Under the project, titled Crash-Test Democracy, the Yekaterinburg reporters set out to see which protest themes would be green-lighted by authorities in the city of 1.4 million ahead of elections scheduled for later this year.

They initially came up with anodyne themes such as animal rights (“In Defense Of The Rights Of Transsexual Animals”) or calling for the pope to be “returned to the lap of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Later, they decided on 18 specific political themes, submitting an equal number of separate written applications on March 21 to the Department of Public Security for Sverdlovsk Oblast. According to the 66.ru website, the applications were rejected on minor technicalities a few days later.

After resubmitting the forms, the reporters received a formal response that outright rejected three proposed protests: “Resign Putin"; "In Support Of Tightening U.S. Sanctions Policy Against Russia”; and another that called on the presidential envoy to the Ural Mountains region to “go back to the factory!”

The reasons given, according the reporters, was that the protests violated the federal constitution and “may be interpreted as aimed at undermining the security of the state.”

Among those approved, meanwhile, were “Vladimir Putin Is Our President” and “Obama Is The Main Enemy of Russia.” Also green-lighted was one that criticized local lawmakers (“Deputies Are the Enemies Of The People”), one in support of local lawmakers (“They Promised; They Delivered”), as well as the more innocent “In Support Of the Happy Future Of Sverdlovsk Oblast.”

(Another proposed demonstration calling for the resignation of the Sverdlovsk governor was tentatively approved, but would have to be held not outside the governor’s residence, as proposed, but in a city park.)

“We, of course, took back all our applications because, honestly speaking, picketing in support or in opposition of someone or other wasn’t in our plans,” the website said, addressing its readers. “We don’t want to get involved in a preelection war under banners with political slogans.

“However, now you know what you can and can’t yell out at meetings and pickets in Yekaterinburg,” it said.

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