Forgotten Constitution

Russian human rights activists meet to demonstrate for peaceful rights of assembly

Ludmila Alexeeva talks to journalists at Triumphalnaya Square | Photo: Ilya Varlamov

The first demonstration of Soviet human rights advocates in the history of the USSR took place in the center of Moscow in 1965. It was a very short one. As soon as demonstrators in the mass gathering on Pushkin Square started to unroll their banners, the militia appeared and arrested them. At the police station, a KGB officer finally unfolded the sign carried by the rally’s organizer, Alexander Yesenin-Volpin. It read as follows: “Respect the Soviet Constitution”.

Fifty-five years have passed, and much has changed: The Soviet Union has collapsed, Perestroika has ended, the world has witnessed the rise and decay of Russian democracy and the creation of an artificial new concept of Sovereign Democracy under Vladimir Putin.

And yet, in 2010, Russian human rights advocates are still asking for the same thing: Respect for the Constitution.

“Rallies of dissenters” have become a tradition for human rights organizations, such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Memorial, Oborona (Defense) Movement, the Solidarnost (Solidarity) Movement and the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners. They call it “Strategy 31,” an initiative aimed at supporting the 31st article of the Russian Constitution that gives the right to peaceful assemblies, rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets. Seventeen Russian cities are participating in the “Strategy 31 Initiative”, including St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok, Astrakhan. Beginning in July 2009, the rallies are held every 31st calendar day, at the same place, at the same time with the same goal – to win back the constitutional right for assemblies.

“The [Russian] government has consistently reduced the space for freedom of assembly and association,” concluded a 2009 report by the Freedom House. “Numerous crackdowns in recent years have effectively discouraged protests.”

Changes in regional legislation have focused on more complicated legal procedures required for obtaining meeting permits, according to a 2009 Special Report on the Freedom of Assembly by the Moscow Helsinki Group. Arrests during the meetings aimed at discouraging demonstrators have become a trend, as well as an inexplicable level of violence and brutality by the police in some cases. These abuses of power are rarely, if ever, tried in a Russian court, opening the way to further violence. In the vast majority of cases, Russian State Television covers neither the meetings nor the rough manner in which they are dispersed, sometimes with the involvement of the Russian Special Riot Squad OMON.

Meanwhile, says Vladimir Pozner, a Russian liberal media patriarch, the Strategy 31 Initiative protects the constitution by unconstitutional means. The problem exists only in Moscow where the organizers of the rally insist on one particular square, Triumphal square, in Moscow as a venue for the meetings. Although the Constitution permits the peaceful assembly that poses no risk to public safety, the local government has to be informed about the event in advance and give its approval. If, as in this case, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov does not approve the event or the venue, the police and OMON have a right to disperse the gathering.

In the Strategy 31 Initiative, the Mayor disapproved all eight rallies, giving seemingly ridiculous reasons. The Triumphal Square just happened to be pre-reserved for other events on those days, such as a Winter Fun event (attended by mostly pro-Kremlin youth movement activists) and even a Donor’s Day celebration, when every Muscovite could stop by at the square and donate blood on the spot – as if no advance screening were ever needed. The Moscow Government cleans snow, organizes sport events, marathons at the square, but it seems like it manages to keep the spot fully occupied only every 31st calendar day of the year. Usually the only fun around Mayakovsky is a constant traffic jam. Movement opponents also cite the small size of the square as a reason for refusing the permits; those traffic jams, they say, make the spot a poor choice for any rally. The Mayor’s Office is happy to supply alternative venues to the Strategy 31 Initiative, quiet places far from the city center, where few will see them.

“Russia has become a police state,” the organizers said in a prepared statement addressed to the Russian Government.

“We are trying to win on a tiny set of issues, but you don’t want to give in. But you are swinging a scythe against a rock.”

Ludmila Alexeeva, the 82-year-old human rights advocate and chair of Moscow Helsinki Group, actively supports Strategy 31 Initiative and attends the rallies herself. On Dec. 31, 2009 she was arrested by the police, which then began to get scared by what they had just done – arresting Alexeeva meant trouble and too much public attention. More alive and alert than any OMON officer, Alexeeva is confident that her efforts are worth risking her fragile health. But is any meaningful victory possible against such odds?

“Sure we will win,” she says. “I just don’t know when.” What she does know is that, meticulously and constantly forcing those in power to obey the law, is important in modern Russia.

“We finally got approval for the establishment of civil control of detention institutions. But it took us 11 years,” she says. On average, only two out of every 10 legal cases are successful that the Moscow Helsinki Group handles for Russian citizens. The Russian courts tend to take the side of the state by default.

“The power here does not work by the law, but by their notions of the law,” she says, citing interaction with state authorities as the most difficult part of today’s human rights advocate work.

As for the unconstitutionality of the means employed by Strategy 31 Initiative, Alexeeva claims on her LiveJournal blog: “We do not violate any law. Since we have not received an approval of the Government for the conduct of our meeting…ever, we come [to the Triumphalnaya Square] at the appointed time and date, but we don’t bring the megaphone and placards. We just put a “31” sign on our clothes. Not a single law prohibits a citizen to be at a chosen time in a chosen place with this kind of sign on his or her outfit.”

Commenting on the Moscow Government’s refusal to permit the Strategy 31 Initiative activists to gather at the Triumphalnaya Square, a Russian poet and writer Lev Rubinshtein says:  “The key aspect of this argument [between the Government and human rights activists] is the verb ‘to permit.’ In practice, it does not matter where exactly. But it’s significantly important that no authority simply has the right to give me permission – a citizen of the country and citizen of my hometown – to be where I decided to be. Why exactly Triumphalnaya Square? Because of the circumstances it became a symbol of civil opposition.”

In a “show” reform of the Interior Ministry in mid-February, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired two deputy ministers and 17 generals for corruption and unjustified violence practiced by the law enforcement in the regions. But in order to change the role of the law enforcement structures in a police-dominated state, Russian human rights activists say, one has to give up the police nature of the state itself.

While working on the April issue of The Vienna Review, we found out that the Moscow Government refused to give its consent for the Strategy 31 Initiative planned for March 31st. The Trumphalnaya Square has been scheduled for another event. This time Russian youth movements will supposedly present their federal programs. They claim that 5000 people will attend what they call a “Generation Day”, whatever it means.

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