What can we learn from Russia’s spring of protest?

Russian citizens are fed up. Truckers keep on protesting, and allegations of corruption at the highest levels are drawing crowds. Recent demonstrations teach us that protest could be the only right we’ve got left. Русский

Alexei Kozlov
23 May 2017

A protest against corruption in St Petersburg, April 2017. Photo CC-by-2.0: Farhad Sadykov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The past two months have seen prominent and mass protests in Russia. The most high profile was the “Anti-Dimon” protest, initiated by Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation. This demonstration was directed against PM Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged illegal activities. On 26 March, tens of thousands of people across Russia, from small towns as well as large regional centres, took to the streets carrying placards with anti-corruption slogans. In most places, the demonstrations went peacefully, but in Moscow there were mass detentions of protesters by the police.

At the same time as these rallies were taking place, the country’s road traffic was being disrupted by a long distance truckers’ strike. The truckers are protesting an electronic toll system introduced to compensate for damage done by heavy goods vehicles to Russia’s roads. And, finally, on 29 April came the “Fed Up” demonstration, set up initially by the Open Russia movement, although admittedly it wasn’t the demo itself that had the most impact, but the inclusion of the movement’s American and British branches in the Russian government’s list of “undesirable organisations”, as well as an illegal search of its Moscow office and seizure of equipment and literature.

The “Fed Up” protest, unlike the 26 March protests, attracted few people and was basically a failure. It was unsuccessful in part due to its strange format (it reminded me of a petition to the Tsar) and in part due to unsuccessful mobilisation of participants (there were practically no direct or repeated calls to drum up potential protesters), as well as the inability of the organisers to convert the moves against Open Russia into media hype and a call to action. There was no publicity around the fact that the searches of Open Russia were linked directly to the forthcoming protests.

The authorities’ reaction to the new wave of protest was predictable: mass arrests, detentions, searches and other infringements of civil rights

It also became clear that Open Russia had no real leaders or even “talking heads”. Although Andrey Pivovarov, an Open Russia organiser in St Petersburg, is coping with this role (thanks mainly to his previous experience), in Moscow, that is, at the national level, there’s no one to fill this niche.

The authorities’ reaction to the new wave of protest was predictable: mass arrests, detentions, searches and other infringements of civil rights. Charges and trials on a scale similar to those triggered by the Bolotnaya Square events in May 2012 are a distinct possibility for those involved in the 26 March protests. The Russian authorities are evidently still terrified of street protests and don’t understand why they are happening.

Prosecutions, trials and detentions

Protesters, in numbers comparable only to those of the first days of the For Fair Elections demonstrations in 2011, have been charged with both criminal and administrative offences. There have been far more detentions and administrative charges than even during the violent dispersal of the Bolotnaya protesters in May 2012.

Moscow City Court’s official record shows that Tverskoy district court filed 732 administrative charges against people detained on Tverskaya Street on 26 March alone. There were also dozens of charges filed in the regions, and 89 known in St Petersburg. So far 64 people in Moscow have been sentenced to administrative detention of between two and 25 days.

No less than 543 people detained by police in Moscow have been given fines of 10,000- 20,000 roubles (£138-£275). All those known to have been charged with administrative offences have been found guilty. Court sessions have had a formal, unlawful and accusatory character.

“The police used to turn a blind eye in at least half of cases, but now the Tverskoy court will swallow everything,” says Sergei Sharov-Delaunay, who works in Moscow as a public defender. “It’s come to the stage when someone might be detained at 3pm for a supposed offence at a rally that had been banned between 4pm and 6pm, not to mention that half the trial documents would no longer be in place and the court session would be taking place without any witnesses being called.”

In the future, photos and video clips may be enough to charge someone with an administrative offence

There’s a similar situation in other cities. In Samara, for example, an activist was convicted of taking part in a picket, although he had been detained before it started and was sitting in a police station when it was taking place. Exceptions, such as the case of the Arkhangelsk pensioner Marina Venchikova, only prove the rule. Local law enforcement tried to charge Venchikova with holding an unlawful picket on the basis of a photo posted on a social network in which, according to them, she was allegedly standing with some other people carrying a placard reading “Putin isn’t Russia: Russia is us”. In the end, an Arkhangelsk district court found she had no case to answer.

So far (in most cases), Russian courts have convicted people who have been actually (however unjustifiably) arrested at public events. But in the future, photos and video clips may be enough to charge someone with an administrative offence.


A souvenir ticket to a police van (146 roubles a ride). Photo CC-by-2.0: Evgeny Isaev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In general, the present situation with administrative prosecutions doesn’t much differ from previous protests followed by mass detentions. There has been no order to “rough them up”, but no one is to be allowed to get off scot-free. One new initiative has been fining parents of underage protesters, as well as applying extra-judicial pressure (FSB and police officers visiting protesters’ schools and homes, parents being summoned to juvenile affairs commissions and the public prosecutor’s office etc.). The earlier practice of detaining young protesters at protests has been dropped in favour of this new repressive mechanism.

As well as administrative cases, numerous criminal cases have been instigated. In Moscow, four people have been accused of attacking a police officer during a protest, and one charge of using force against a representative of authority has been brought in Volgograd, with another one attempted in Petrozavodsk.

These cases are characterised by haste and pressure brought to bear by the law enforcement agencies on the accused. Yuri Kuliy, a 28-year-old actor, for example, was arrested on 4 April. According to the prosecution, on 26 March he had grabbed a National Guard officer by the arm on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, causing him “physical harm”. According to Elena Liptser, Kuliy’s lawyer, the guard was unhurt — no injury was recorded. In custody, Kuliy admitted his guilt (a mistake, according to Liptser). His case was examined in special procedure (without any examination of evidence or witnesses) and he received eight months in prison as a result.

The central figure in another case connected with the Moscow protests, on a charge of justifying terrorism and organising mass disruptions of public order, is Dmitry Bogatov, a mathematics lecturer at Moscow University of Finance and Law. Meanwhile, a case of incitement to religious discord was used as a reason for searching the homes of the organisers and participants in acts of protest in Irkutsk, and a case of incitement to hatred as grounds for searches at Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation’s offices in Moscow.

All searches, on any possible grounds, are designed to collect material to be used later to fabricate cases against more people

But if cases of alleged violence are proceeding according to a scheme developed during the Bolotnaya trials, Bogatov’s justification of terrorism charge is a whole new ball game. The fact that the authorities have increased the severity of the charge, and that he will be held in custody until 8 June, also reveals a tendency towards criminalising anonymity online by one means or another.

So far, Bogatov is guilty only of connecting to a Tor network (which is still legal), through which documents allegedly “justifying terrorism and organising mass disruptions of public order” were published. The investigators claim that under the alias “Airat Bashirov”, Bogatov posted two documents that included calls for radical action at protests in Moscow on 2 April. The police have decided to interpret them as “organising mass disruptions of public order” and “incitement to terrorism”.

Unfortunately, protest organisers and protesters (and their parents) are facing not just official prosecution but numerous threats and defamations. One woman in Cheboksary has been reported as losing her job. A teacher in Krasnoyarsk has been fired for showing his students the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s “Anti-Dimon” video. Official bodies are also holding “awareness raising” sessions for young people and school heads about “banning participation in acts of protest”. In Primorsky Krai, for example, the authorities have distributed circulars about the need for headteachers to talk to their students about this and forbid them to go to opposition rallies.


Некоторые права защищены. The yellow duck became a symbol of Russia’s anti-corruption movement when, during the “Anti-Dimon” protests, jokes appeared online about the duck house seen at a residence believed to belong to prime minister Medvedev. Photo CC-by-SA-4.0: Daggets / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is nothing new in the police detaining protesters and protest organisers, but the scale of arrests after 26 March and the fact that they have continued for days and months afterwards has made them particularly shocking. The most flagrant case is that of Vyacheslav Maltsev, a prominent anti-establishment blogger and politician, whose door was broken down so he could be flown back to Moscow from his home city of Saratov — just so that he could be held in detention for 15 days for insubordination to a police officer. He suffered from heart trouble en route.

All this implies a desire on the part of the government to extend the range of the “26 March Case”, both in terms of numbers of arrests and territory covered. All searches, on any possible grounds, are designed to collect material to be used later to fabricate cases against more people.

The official limits to freedom of assembly

The 26 March protests and the St Petersburg metro attack in April have been used by the authorities in several regions to limit the public’s right to peaceful assembly.

Voronezh’s Anti-Terrorist Commission, for example, has ordered “measures to be taken to limit public and mass events within the Voronezh city limits. The authorities in Tomsk moved the city’s “Hyde Park” away from the city centre (where it had been the venue for an anti-corruption rally on 26 March) to an industrial zone on its north-eastern outskirts. In Samara and Orenburg, protest venues were removed from the list of local “Hyde Parks” — specially designated places where Russians could rally without seeking permission from the city authorities, the name a reference to London’s famous “Speakers’ Corner”.

Protest is one of Russian citizens’ last political rights, the last opportunity they have to question and make demands of the powers that be

There have, nonetheless, been a few cases where bans on public meetings have been overturned. Pskov City Court declared a ban on protests on 26 March illegal, although the idea was possibly to ban protests specifically on 26 March, while leaving any further activity alone.

There have been numerous attempts to introduce official restrictions on freedom of assembly at regional level. They exist de facto in the North Caucasus, where an authorisation system is in force for public events, whereas by law there should be a simple notification process. According to the letter of the law, organisers should inform the authorities of their wish to hold a picket. The authorities may then suggest a change of time or place for the picket, but formally they have no right to permit or prohibit events of this kind.

With the use of this system in several regions at once and in the absence of any “tweaking” from central government, this tendency might become more common. In some ways, it ties in with Putin’s 10 May directive on special security measures during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup. The directive includes the introduction of a strict authorisation system for public events, which for a limited period will require permission from the FSB. The idea of a directive of this kind is not new (there were similar restrictions in place during the 2014 Winter Olympics), but the scale will be much larger this time.

Official civil rights bodies such as the Ombudsperson’s department and the Presidential Council on Human Rights are unlikely to interfere with these decisions. The only hope lies with regional activists, who have successfully challenged such initiatives many times on the past, in some cases through the courts. In Voronezh, for instance, no less than three attempts by various regional bodies to limit the holding of public events were successfully contested. Civil rights activists Natalya Zvyagina and Ilya Sivoldayev defended the right of the citizens in Voronezh to peaceful assembly on many occasions and in courts at various levels.

Dealing with detention

Trials in connection with the 26 March protests are continuing: they are expected to drag on until the end of May.

We mustn’t forget that in Russia, protest is criminalised: the penalty for an administrative offence, such as taking part in an unauthorised rally, is close to that for a criminal offence — being held in custody for up to 30 days and a fine of up to 300,000 roubles [£4,065]. And repeated infringement of the law on public assembly can trigger a criminal charge and a possible two year prison sentence.

This abundance of administrative cases against protesters has practically exhausted the capabilities of Moscow’s NGOs and public defenders

In this situation, the role of lawyers and public defenders (people with appropriate knowledge of the law but without the status of a lawyer) becomes especially important. In the first place, Russia’s Administrative Code doesn’t comply with modern judicial procedure or conform to the European Convention on Human Rights, especially on the right to a defence. It includes no requirement, for example, to record court proceedings. The presence of a lawyer and public defender lowers (although it doesn’t avoid completely) the level of arbitrary decision making in administrative cases. Besides, the specifics of cases relating to public assembly assume relevant knowledge on the part of these people, including knowledge of the corrupt practices resorted to by officials and the police. The effectiveness of the defence is also increased if a lawyer is present at the time when someone is charged.


The cry of dissenters. Photo CC-by-2.0: Ilya Shchurov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This abundance of administrative cases against protesters has practically exhausted the capabilities of Moscow’s NGOs and public defenders — imagine that you have some 1,000 detainees and only 20 lawyers. Meanwhile, because of the array of administrative cases, information on criminal cases has often not been worked out in time, and human rights lawyers arrive at these cases late and unprepared. In short, the main problem of all these complex criminal cases is the almost complete absence of human rights lawyers attending to them, a gap which “lawyers for hire” then come to fill — lawyers who are quite clearly biased on the side of the state investigators.

In this situation, exchange of information and coordination play a crucial role. How many people have been detained, where they are, what they’ve been charged with, do they need a lawyer, and if so, when should that lawyer get involved? Obviously, it’s entirely up to the detainees whether they get involved or not, and other organisations have helped those who do. During the 26 March detentions, Jailed Russia, Open Russia, and OVD-Info all helped coordinate assistance and keep people informed.

By contrast, the FSB’s searches of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation offices and detentions of its staff has certainly impeded their ability to provide legal assistance. Nevertheless, the key issue was that Navalny’s organisation was just not prepared for the volume of work that came in. Olga Romanova, a prominent human rights defender and journalist, said that “on practically every day following 26 March, defence lawyers were working at the Tverskoy District Court in Moscow, including many from Jailed Russia [Romanova’s organisation].” And they worked for free, under the umbrella of OVD-Info, Memorial, Public Verdict and Jailed Russia, with their headquarters at OVD-Info’s offices. Romanova mentions some 37 lawyers and public defenders working in Moscow that day.

It came as no surprise that the courts were biased and in practice offered far from a fair trial to the detainees. Moscow-based lawyer Alexei Avanesyan testified that documents and video recordings put forward by the defence were not taken into account, and even that the authorities’ detention records with justifications of the arrest had been taken on carbon paper — documents pertaining to multiple detainees included the same smelling mistakes!

The lesson is that organisations that aim to mobilise mass protests should also prepare in advance for mass detentions

Why were Open Russia and its various initiatives able to provide such a high level of legal support to people detained during the “Fed Up” protest? Firstly, the organisation had its own human rights programme and many lawyers who were immediately available to get down to work. Secondly, there was a relatively small number of detained people given the small number of overall demonstrators. Although the number of human rights violations by the authorities was quite visible, there were fortunately no criminal cases launched — the harshest sentence was for ten days administrative arrest.

The lesson is that organisations that aim to mobilise mass protests should also prepare in advance for mass detentions, in the eventuality that the authorities refuse to allow such protests to go forward, or simply forbid them outright. Protest organisers should commit to maintaining contact with human rights defenders and negotiating with any other structures which express support for such demonstrations. Undertakings to guarantee the safety of protesters and to follow the conduct and mood of a public event are also crucial.


Nevsky Prospekt is fed up. Photo CC: PaperPaper / VK.com. Some rights reserved.

Remuneration of lawyers poses yet another problem. They should be paid either by their client, or a third-party organisation. Going by standard legal fees, it’s clear that only one in ten protesters could afford this support. The current practice is that detainees are generally represented by lawyers who are compensated for their work by human rights organisations. As human rights defenders have very limited resources, there are not many lawyers willing to work under such conditions.

My advice is as follows: anybody participating in, and certainly organising, a protest in Russia needs to take legal support seriously. Everybody should also bear in mind that regularly violating the law on peaceful assemblies could lead to a criminal case being opened against you. Yes, Ildar Dadin is free. But that doesn’t mean that another won’t take his place — perhaps even one of the 1,500 people across the country who were detained during protests on 26 March. After all Maria Baronova, as organiser of the “Fed Up” protest, has already been fined by the authorities.

What’s to come?

The role of protest organisers is again significant. The direct participation of Alexei Navalny in his own protests, along with his 15 days’ detention, certainly won’t harm his reputation. Faced with a situation where mass media deliberately do not mention forthcoming protests, circulating information about the course of such demonstrations becomes extremely important — which is why independent media initiatives are important once again. This is exactly why the authorities searched the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s offices — in order to disrupt their live broadcast and find any evidence of preparations for future mass protests.

The strike against Open Russia was pre-emptive. It’s as yet unclear quite what the consequences will be for the authorities’ inclusion of Open Russia’s British and American branches in the list of “undesirable” organisations. But there should be no illusions about the prosecutor’s statement that this will not impede their regular operation. If you look carefully at Russia’s law on “undesirable organisations”, it becomes obvious that prosecutions will be carried out against individuals, not organisations.

Will there be any further street protests in Russia? Undoubtedly, and it’s clear that the Moscow rally of 14 May against the “renovation” of Soviet-era apartment blocks won’t be the last. Protest is one of Russian citizens’ last political rights, the last opportunity they have to question and make demands of the powers that be — because otherwise, the authorities just won’t listen. Will there be further repressions against the organisers of protests, and those who participate in them? Of course, because the authorities know no other way to respond — and aren’t interested in any other answers.

Translated by Liz Barnes

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