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Russia's Opposition Still Faces A Hard Road

Russian police officers detain an opposition supporter during the "Day of Wrath" protest rally against government policy in central Moscow on November 12.
Russian police officers detain an opposition supporter during the "Day of Wrath" protest rally against government policy in central Moscow on November 12.
On October 31, supporters of Russia's political opposition gathered in the center of Moscow to hold an authorized Strategy 31 protest meeting.

After many previous applications to hold demonstrations had been rejected by the authorities, on this occasion the meeting was sanctioned and around 2,000 people gathered in Triumph Square to hear speeches from, among others, veteran human rights campaigners Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Lev Ponomaryov, Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin and Oleg Kozlovsky of the Solidarity movement, and Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov. Conspicuous by his absence on the platform was the leader of Other Russia and the originator of the Strategy 31 campaign, Eduard Limonov.

The Strategy 31 campaign was launched in the summer of 2009 with the aim of defending Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to assemble peacefully. Until October, each application to hold a rally had been rejected, often on spurious grounds and occasionally -- and probably not coincidentally -- because the proposed protest clashed with an event organized by pro-Kremlin youth groups.

The head of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, Alekseyeva, and the former leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, Limonov, together with Konstantin Kosyakin of the Left Front had jointly submitted previous applications. In October, the authorities (it has been suggested on the instructions of the Kremlin's chief ideologue, Vladislav Surkov) contacted Alekseyeva to approve the rally, providing numbers were kept to 200. Alekseyeva refused and a compromise figure of 800 was agreed, Alekseyeva later stating that she fully expected a greater number to show up.

Limonov refused to accept a cap on numbers and subsequently held his own, unsanctioned meeting at the same location. In the event, activists from both the sanctioned and unsanctioned meetings were able to break through police ranks and effectively unite the two meetings. Around 30 protesters, mainly supporters of Limonov, were later arrested as they attempted to march on the White House government building.

Hints Of Change?

Speakers at the meeting heralded it as a major breakthrough and evidence that the regime's resolve to marginalize political opposition was beginning to weaken. Subsequently both Nemtsov and Yashin talked about the need to raise the stakes by applying to hold a march as well as a meeting on December 31.

In a surprise move and as activists were preparing for the meeting, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev used his presidential veto power to reject a bill that would have severely curtailed the ability of the opposition to arrange further protests. State Duma deputies from United Russia, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia had steered a bill through both houses that would have banned anyone previously convicted of even a minor offense from organizing future protests. This would have affected the majority of the leadership of the key opposition movements, most of whom have been arrested in the past for taking part in such actions.

While some in the opposition movement were pleasantly surprised by the president's action, others were more skeptical. Udaltsov struck a cautious note, suggesting that the following days would "show how strong the president's desire is to deal with this situation, or whether it was a tactical move." It remains unclear whether the amendment will be redrafted to the president's satisfaction or simply dropped.

The sanctioning of the meeting and Medvedev's intervention does not, however, necessarily presage a new, more open relationship between the regime and opposition as events since October 31 confirm.

While the protesters arrested after the October 31 meeting in Moscow were released without charge the following day, their counterparts in other cities were less fortunate. Two Other Russia activists in St. Petersburg were arrested and sentenced to several days' imprisonment for organizing a Strategy 31 protest. Although released after three days, both face potential criminal proceedings for participating in "extremist" activity.

'A Whack On The Head'

A further indication that the authorities were not necessarily going to follow a more moderate line in their dealings with the opposition came one week after the Strategy 31 meeting. On November 7 members of the Left Front and Other Russia, together with activists from smaller leftist fringe groups, totaling no more than 300, joined the traditional march organized by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) to commemorate the October Revolution. Both groups had previously joined the Communists' rallies and, indeed, the Left Front is seen as an ally by many in the KPRF.

However, as the march proceeded along Tverskaya Street, the opposition groups bringing up the rear were quickly cut off by OMON special police. A tense standoff followed while Udaltsov negotiated with the OMON chief and attempted to contact the KPRF leadership (by now well on the way to their rally and celebratory concert).

Word came back that while the Left Front was welcome to rejoin the march, the Communists had been warned not to cooperate with Limonov's Other Russia. In an act of solidarity hitherto rare among Russia's opposition groups, the Left Front decided to stay with their Other Russia colleagues. The standoff was ended when leading activists from both main groups, including Udaltsov, were arrested and dragged off to awaiting police buses.

Following skirmishes, the remaining protesters were dispersed, some managing to escape into side streets, others receiving beatings from the police. This was the start of an eventful week for Udaltsov, who was arrested on November 9 for organizing a protest against unsanctioned building work on Pushkin Square and again three days later along with around 20 others in the Day of Wrath protest. Similar to the Strategy 31 campaign, the Day of Wrath campaign is held on the 12th of every month to highlight Article 12 of the constitution, which proclaims the right to local self-government.

Having initially indicated that the protest would be allowed to go ahead, the Moscow City Court backtracked on its decision and refused permission two days before the planned protest. Udaltsov, together with his Left Front colleague, Kosyakin were given custodial sentences of 10 and 12 days, respectively.

We should, therefore, be cautious about reading too much into the decision to allow the October 31 protest and Medvedev's possible tempering of antiopposition legislation. Instead, the recent remarks of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are perhaps more telling. During his road trip across Russia in August, Putin commented in characteristically blunt language about opposition protests: "You've got permission? Go and march. If not, you don't have the right. Go to a rally without permission and you get a whack on the head. It's that simple."

Few opposition activists in Russia will be naive enough to think that the recent sanctioning of the Strategy 31 meeting is anything other than a very small opening of the door to further protests. For those engaged in opposition activity in Russia, the "whack on the head" is likely to remain an occupational hazard for some time to come.

David White is a lecturer in politics at the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL