Freedom Marches Turn Three

Freedom Marches Turn Three

After large fines were introduced for unauthorized rallies, the march organizers stopped applying for authorization.

Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)

Strategy 31 will mark its third anniversary in St. Petersburg with an unauthorized rally Thursday. The movement set up to defend the right of assembly will protest a bill that would ban protests in most of the city and that the Legislative Assembly passed in a first reading last week.

For three years, regular rallies at Gostiny Dvor have drawn dozens to hundreds of participants, journalists and spectators, as well as overwhelming police presence and measures, resulting in dozens of arrests, fines and brief prison sentences.

A campaign that calls on the authorities to obey the constitution, whose Article 31 guarantees the right of assembly, Strategy 31 has become a major irritant for the powers that be, who have effectively abolished the previous system under which organizers were merely required to inform them about a planned rally, rather than ask for permission.

Conceived in 2009 by the Moscow-based author Eduard Limonov, who founded The Other Russia party in 2010 after his previous organization, the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), was banned for alleged extremism three years earlier, Strategy 31 rallies have been held in dozens of cities across Russia, although the rallies have attracted fewer participants in recent months than when the campaign was at its peak in 2010.

According to Limonov, it is a nonviolent nonpartisan campaign, in which political activists and concerned citizens of any views are welcome to take part, with rallies held on the 31st day of every month that has 31 days. The first local Strategy 31 rally was held on Jan. 31, 2010 and ended in dozens of arrests.

A group of The Other Russia activists who were investigated and tried for allegedly carrying out the “extremist activities of a banned organization” in a case known as the Trial of 12, are planning to participate in the upcoming rally for the first time since the investigation against them was opened on Oct. 25, 2010.

The activists — whose charges included participating in Strategy 31 rallies, presented by the prosecution as rallies of the banned NBP — were concerned that participating in an authorized protest during the investigation and trial could land them in a pre-trial detention center, but the trial ended with the judge finding them guilty but leaving them unpunished, due to the expiration of the limitation period for minor crimes on Dec. 28, 2012.

“Our forced vacation has ended, so we’ll come and continue to fight for the freedom of assembly,” Andrei Dmitriyev, The Other Russia’s local chair and a former Trial of 12 defendant, said Tuesday.

“This 31 protest is especially topical, because of the [proposed] amendments to the law on assemblies, aimed at banning us from rallying on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Isaac’s Square and Palace Square, closer than 200 meters to administrative buildings, and so on.”

Although the Legislative Assembly voted not to discuss the amendments when the bill was first submitted by City Governor Georgy Poltavchenko in a session on Jan. 16, the parliament then passed it in a first reading on Jan. 23.

According to Dmitriyev, the activists will urge all their fellow opposition-minded citizens to protest the amendments, as well as City Hall’s plans to move protests to a small site on the Field of Mars, which he described as “Uncle Zhora’s little paddock,” referring to Poltavchenko’s nickname.

“We shouldn’t go to ‘Uncle Zhora’s little paddock,’ graciously given by the authorities far from masses of citizens, somewhere near the Eternal Flame,” Dmitriyev said.

“The opposition — be it liberal, left-wing or nationalist — has nothing to do there; let United Russia rally there. We see that City Hall liked the idea and is sending everybody to rally there. We will continue to come to Nevsky and defend freedom of assembly by doing so.”

No Strategy 31 rally in St. Petersburg has been authorized by City Hall, which has presented a diverse range of grounds, from alleged renovation or snow-plowing work to proximity to Gostiny Dvor metro, though non-political events on the site have met no objections.

After the State Duma introduced large fines for organizing and participating in unauthorized rallies in June 2012, the organizers stopped applying to City Hall for authorization, reasoning that the organizers who sign the application risk facing especially large fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000).

Summing up the first three years of Strategy 31, Dmitriyev said that it had established a tradition.

“On the one hand, we see that we haven’t achieved our goal — freedom of assembly — and, moreover, the laws are getting harsher. What’s important to us is that we’ve set a tradition of coming to Gostiny Dvor on Nevsky Prospekt to defend our rights,” he said.

“We are stubborn guys; we think the main thing is to hammer away at one point. I think Strategy 31 in Moscow and St. Petersburg paved the way for the mass rallies that started after the State Duma elections last year. It’s not without reason that people came to Gostiny Dvor, it was established as a protest site, which was demonstrated in December.”

The biggest Strategy 31 rallies in St. Petersburg were those held in July and August 2010, which each drew more than 1,000 people, but the most recent protest on Dec. 31, 2012 drew just a few dozen.

The July 31, 2010 rally was also marked by particularly brutal police beatings, which led to the much-publicized trial of police officer Vadim Boiko, who hit a man in the face with his truncheon and was eventually given a three-year suspended sentence in December 2011.

According to Dmitriyev, the number of participants does not matter as much as the decisiveness of activists to continue the campaign despite arrests, fines and police violence, rather than making behind-the-scenes agreements and compromises with the authorities.

“For the opposition, the main thing is honesty and consistency, and Strategy 31 is an expression of absolute honesty and consistency,” Dmitriyev said.

“So not very many people might come to the rallies, so somebody might say that it’s a repetitive show; it’s honesty and consistency that will be in demand under the current circumstances.”

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