Rally for the right to vote in Moscow on August 10th 2019.
Source: Sergey Leschina, via Wikimedia Commons.
The summer of 2019 in Russia stood in stark contrast with last year’s flourish and excitement surrounding the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It was a summer marked by marked by violence and widespread political discontent.
In the lead-up to the 2019 Moscow City Duma election, news emerged that over half of the registration applications submitted by independent candidates were rejected by the Moscow City Election Committee. Over 10% of the signatures they collected were found to be fraudulent and inadmissible. This quickly sparked outrage amongst the Russian public, as prominent activists, some of whose candidacies got rejected, claimed that the MCEC fabricated these results, thus actively seeking to prevent them from running for the Duma.
Over the next 2 months, a series of authorised and unauthorised protests took place in many Russian cities. They were accompanied by hundreds of arrests and incidents of violence where the protesters clashed with the police and the Rosgvardiya (also known as The National Guard) – Russia’s internal military force reporting directly to the President.
While Article 31 of the Russian Constitution guarantees right of assembly to all Russian citizens, a 2004 amendment to the Federal Law requires that any public gathering including more than one person has to be detailed to the authorities for approval at least 10 days in advance. In the event that the gathering does not get the green light, under the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offences Article 20.2, those found guilty of gathering for an unsanctioned protest or demonstration can be subject to a monetary fine of up to 20,000 roubles (~£240) or up to 40 hours of community service. This penalty increases to 50,000 roubles (~£600), 100 hours of community service or administrative arrest if a person is found guilty of interfering with any infrastructure including pedestrian routes and entrances to any residential or administrative buildings.
In some cases, even being in the vicinity of an unauthorised protest can have grave repercussions. The case of actor Pavel Ustinov in particular has garnered a lot of attention from various prominent Russian journalists, actors, Orthodox priests and politicians on social media. Currently only sentenced to a two-year probation period, he was initially confined to three years in prison, having been accused of resisting arrest and dislocating a shoulder of a National Guard officer during a protest in Moscow on August 10th. The court originally refused to take into consideration a video of his arrest showing Ustinov neither participating in the protest, nor attacking his arresting officers. This attracted widespread backlash from members of the Russian public and eventually led to his sentence being reversed. After his release he gave an interview to RBC, stating that while he was in the prisoner transport vehicle he overheard two members of OMON (a separate unit within the Russian Guard responsible for regulating public unrest) whispering about ‘choosing someone more impressive’ and pointing in his direction. Shortly after, he was led out of the car and accused of dislocating an officer’s shoulder.
The extent of police brutality during the protests also amassed much criticism from the Russian public. After the August 10th protest in Moscow, a viral video surfaced of a policeman hitting an unarmed woman while forcibly dragging her to a prisoner transfer vehicle along with two other officers. The woman was later identified as Daria Sosnovskaya. After being released with a warning on the same day, Sosnovskaya submitted a statement to the Investigative Committee of Russia, asserting that the incident took place after she made a critical comment to one of the police officers about twisting the arms of a man with a disability during arrest. According to her claim, the officers then proceeded to grab and arrest her without any warning or introduction, leading to her receiving head trauma and multiple contusions which were recorded during her visit to the hospital the following day.
Although the Kremlin condemned excessive use of violence by the police during the protests, it maintained its support for law enforcement’s efforts to suppress public unrest. This is despite claims of those present during the protests that most arrests that took place were unwarranted. Natalya Zvyagina, the director of Amnesty International’s Russia division, claimed that representatives of the group were witnesses to ‘indiscriminate use of force by police, who beat protesters with batons and knocked them to the ground’. Likewise, Alexander Verhovsky, a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, affirmed that people should have a right to assembly and scorned gratuitous arrests, saying that ‘the fact that some people seemed to interfere with the passage of others is not an offence. And the arrests, in their essence, took place because of this’.
Special effort was put in to deter young people from participating in the protests. Multiple Rectors of universities in Moscow, including the Russian State University for the Humanities and the Moscow State Pedagogical University, threatened those students who would participate in unauthorised protests with expulsion. The students protested this claim in an open letter to Alexander Bezborodov, Rector of RSUH, citing Article 14 (7) in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, guaranteeing an individual’s protection against double jeopardy. Elsewhere, the protests on August 3rd and 10th were both accompanied by last-minute announcements by the Government of Moscow, advertising the “Meat&Beat” and “Шашлык.Live” festivals. Both were advertised only a few days before their starting dates, with stars of Russia’s hip-hop and pop music scene set to give a concert on the same day as the scheduled protests. These were widely seen to act as a deterrent for young people and secure smaller numbers for the rallies.
While police crackdown and threats of wider repercussions are sure to have deterred some from taking part in the rallies, they also became a stimulant for many Russians to express their disapproval of the government’s actions and drew even more people to protests in their opposition. An authorised rally held on September 29th in support of political prisoners following the summer protests attracted over 25,000 people according to data collected by White Counter, an independent protest monitor agency.