Criticism Directed At Street Demonstration Bill

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 14

Last week the federal Duma gave preliminary approval to a controversial bill that would limit the rights of Russians to organize street demonstrations such as those that have taken place to protest the Putin administration’s policies in Chechnya. Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the opposition Yabloko party that lost most of its seats in the Duma in December, said that if necessary his party will file a suit before Russia’s Constitutional Court appealing for the new law to be invalidated.

The legislation’s supporters are trying to minimize its likely consequences, but its critics vigorously disagree. Yana Serova, writing in the April 5 issue of Novaya gazeta, challenged the claim that the bill requires the organizers of demonstrations only to inform the authorities in advance, not to seek permission. She conceded that, formally, a demonstration’s organizers are required only to announce their plans at least ten days beforehand. But she pointed out that the bill’s text allows the authorities to decline to accept such advance notification if the demonstration is in conflict with “generally accepted norms of morality.” Municipal bureaucrats, she argued, will in practice have the authority to decide just what those norms are.

An independent member of the Duma, Sergei Popov, said that in effect what will happen if this provision is not changed “is that if any government agency does not wish to accept notification for whatever reason, the mass meeting cannot take place.”

Opponents of the bill are also emphasizing its detailed list of places where demonstrations will be forbidden, including the areas around government buildings or embassies–in Serova’s words, “precisely where people are accustomed to demonstrating.” According to an Interfax report, Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov told journalists on April 4 that this provision in the bill would be dropped before final passage.

Meanwhile, the many Chechens and members of other southern ethnic groups who live in the Russian heartland received another reminder on April 1 of the resurgence of Russian racism. As reported by Olga Nedbaeva of Agence France-Presse, a public ceremony sanctioned by Moscow’s municipal government to honor the victims of the February 6 bomb blast in the city’s metro turned into an anti-“foreigner” rally. Young demonstrators at the Gorky Park gathering carried a banner proclaiming “Say yes to deportation” and chanted “Moscow is a Russian city, Russia for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites.”