It was on Moscow’s celebrated Pushkin Square, some thirty-six years ago, that one of the landmark protests of the Brezhnev era took place as a handful of brave dissidents unfurled signs denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The demonstrators were immediately arrested, but many remember their protest as the beginning of a new stage in the dissident movement that gradually eroded the internal legitimacy of the Soviet regime.
Pushkin Square, dominated by its much-loved statue of Russia’s greatest poet, is Moscow’s center for grassroots protests–unlike Red Square, with its grandiose spectacles commissioned by the ruling elite. For the last four years human rights activists have gathered there every Thursday to protest Vladimir Putin’s war on Chechnya. The activists complied with all the regulations governing peaceful demonstrations, and their weekly gathering has long since become a familiar feature of downtown street life. Some passersby have been impressed, others annoyed, still others merely amused by this tiny band of picketers with their unwavering persistence despite their manifest lack of impact on government policies. But even this modest, ineffective protest has now apparently proved to be too much for Russia’s increasingly tyrannical rulers to allow.
In a March 28 article for Russky kurier, Zoya Svetova describes how the Moscow city authorities have withheld permission from the Pushkin Square demonstrators three times within the last month. The demonstrators, usually not more than about a dozen in number, had not changed anything in the content or methods of their protest; what has changed is the willingness of the authorities to tolerate public displays of disagreement.
Yelena Batenkova, head of the tiny “Committee for Anti-War Activities” that conducted the demonstration at 6 p.m. every Thursday, told Svetova that “on March 5 I received a phone call from the [municipal] prefecture, requesting me to postpone our [March 11] demonstration to another date; they claimed that another organization had applied earlier than we had for permission to conduct a demonstration on that date. That was the first little lie. I refused. Then on March 10 took place the demonstration of human right activists.” [NOTE: Batenkova was referring to the demonstration in front of the FSB on Lubyanka Square, organized by Lev Ponomarev and other national human rights leaders; see Chechnya Weekly, March 24. Ponomarev and his co-leader, Nikolai Khramov, have since been fined 1,500 rubles or about US$50 each, roughly a week’s salary for the average Muscovite, because of their role in that demonstration.]
“That demonstration had nothing to do with us,” said Batenkova, “though it is true that one of our own regular demonstrators, Viktor Sokirko, gave a speech there calling on people to boycott the [March 14] presidential election. On the next day they phoned him from the prefecture and informed him that our demonstration had been forbidden.”
According to a March 26 account by Nezavisimaya gazeta reporter Irina Romancheva, another irritant of the March 10 demonstration was that some of the participants had indulged themselves by shouting what Romancheva called a “not quite politically correct” slogan: “Down with Putin!” The reporter learned from Yelena Polyakova, an official of the municipal government’s central administrative okrug, that it was because of the “Down with Putin!” cries that the demonstration planned for March 11 was prohibited.
Observing that “to cancel a demonstration on the same day that it is to take place is a gross violation of the law,” Batenkova insisted on holding the March 11 demonstration anyway. She and her fellow activists were briefly detained by the police, and within a few days were informed by the city authorities that they would not have permission to conduct their planned demonstrations of March 18 or March 25. In her court case, scheduled to begin this week, she intends to cite Article 31 of Russia’s 1993 constitution, which guarantees Russian citizens the right to conduct peaceful assemblies and demonstrations.
In Batenkova’s opinion, the authorities had long since grown more and more annoyed with the weekly demonstration. “It is obvious,” wrote Svetova, “that this protest against the activities of the Russian army in Chechnya, even though it is not being heard, is all the same more and more inconsistent with ‘the general party line.’ Incidentally, on March 10 Yelena Batenkova was supposed to receive a peace prize from a group of Russian and Chechen non-government organizations. The prize was to be awarded by [Great Britain’s] Lord Judd. But on March 5 the Russian Foreign Ministry denied the Council of Europe’s former rapporteur on Chechnya a visa.”
Polyakova of Nezavisimaya gazeta noted that the new policy toward the weekly anti-war demonstrations creates “a significant precedent.” In theory, and mostly in practice as well, until recently a group conducting a political demonstration in Russia was required not to seek permission in advance from the authorities but merely to inform them. The Moscow city authorities’ new practice means that they may now have the police arrest demonstrators who have not received formal permission, even if they have filed all the paperwork previously required. Apparently freedom of speech for protest marchers will now exist only when and if the government so chooses.
In a related development, the Russian delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is trying to prevent the subject of Chechnya from even being discussed at the commission’s session now underway in Geneva. Yury Fedotov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency on March 26 that some countries might try to submit a draft resolution on Chechnya to the UN body, but that “Russia will strongly object to such attempts, and we count on the support of the majority of Commission Members.”