Tensions Mount Over Mass Protest
Published: December 12, 2008 (Issue # 1433)
City Hall on Thursday downgraded a major oppositional protest event scheduled for Sunday to a stationary meeting at the Chernyshevsky Gardens, far from the city center, organizers said after meeting with officials. The protest is the latest in a series of actions that are known as Dissenters’ Marches,
Last week, City Hall rejected three routes suggested for the march by the rally organizers, without offering an alternative as they are legally required to do, prompting the applicants to file a lawsuit against the local government on Monday.
Although they have agreed to a stationary meeting at the Chernyshevsky Gardens, the majority of organizers and participants will gather at a previously announced starting point near Gostiny Dvor Metro at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Olga Kurnosova, the local leader of Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front (OGF), said by phone on Thursday.
“[Participants will gather] at Gostiny Dvor and move along sidewalks, in an organized way, toward the Chernyshevsky Gardens,” Kurnosova said. The approximate distance between the two points is 3 kilometers. The gardens will be open to protesters from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Kurnosova said.
Dissenters’ Marches were introduced as the main form of mass protest in 2006 by the Other Russia, a pro-democracy coalition formed by OGF and Eduard Limonov’s banned National Bolshevik Party. Held several times a year, the marches, which have attracted up to 6,000 protesters at a single event, were frequently dispersed by the OMON special forces police, with many arrests and police beatings reported.
Sunday’s march is targeted against changes to the Russian Constitution that will prolong the presidential and State Duma terms from four years to six and five years respectively. The measures were proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev last month and are currently being approved by regional parliaments. The way the Kremlin is dealing with the economic crisis will also come in for criticism according to flyers published by the organizers.
“Change Those in Power, and Not the Constitution” and “Authorities, Take Responsibility for the Crisis,” stickers advertising the rally state.
Oppositionists said City Hall had no right by Russian law to change the form of the rally from a march to a stationary meeting, but agreed to the offer to avoid clashes with the police.
“Unlike the executive authority and law enforcers, first and foremost for us is the safety of civilians, while for them it’s orders from Moscow,” Kurnosova said.
“That’s why, for us at least, having an official document means, morally, that we do everything we could to provide this safety. So the march will take place come rain or shine.”
Earlier this month, Leonid Bogdanov, the head of the city government’s Law, Order and Secutity Committee, rejected the three suggested routes in a three-page letter, stating reasons ranging from repair works to the possible “distraction of drivers’ and pedestrians’ attention from following the traffic rules, which may lead to possible road traffic accidents.”
However, after the oppositionists announced that the Dissenters’ March would go ahead anyhow — the Russian Constitution guarantees the freedom to hold peaceful public gatherings — tensions between the authorities and the oppositionists mounted.
OGF member Mikhail Makarov was visited at his home by police, including the deputy head of the Vasileostrovsky District Police department, at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Kurnosova said. The officers wanted Makarov to record a video in which he would say he was ceasing to organize the Dissenters’ March, but Makarov considered the demand “unlawful” and declined.
On Thursday morning, Kurnosova’s mother was visited by a district police officer who demanded to know where Kurnosova was, she said.
Late last month, Kurnosova was summoned to the southern Russian town of Astrakhan, where she is a suspect in a criminal case for allegedly smuggling a can of caviar. She was held there for 10 days by investigators. She returned to St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
“I think they will continue to take great pains to complicate my activities in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other places in Russia,” she said.
On Sunday, a Dissenters’ March will also be held in Moscow, despite a ban from the Mayor’s Office, as well as in a number of the other Russian cities.