In Russia’s largest anti-government demonstration in years, tens of thousands marched this past week on March 26th in protest of perceived corruption in the Kremlin. Earlier this month, an anti-corruption group alleged that the Prime Minister, and former President, Dmitry Medvedev had amassed his fortune through bribes, counterfeit companies, and fake charities. Prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny organized the protests as a call to the Russian authorities to launch their own investigation into Medvedev. The Kremlin, however, dismissed all charges, claiming that the allegations were nothing more than “provocation and lies.” Russia’s President Putin also commented, not on the content of protests themselves, but on their legality. He argued that “everyone should act…within the framework of the law. All those outside this law should bear punishment.”
Adopted in 1993, the current Constitution of the Russian Federation seemingly protects the right to assemble. Article 31 states that Russian citizens “shall have the right to assemble peacefully…hold rallies, mass meetings and demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” Yet this past week between 500 and 700 people were arrested in Moscow alone, and around 100 others were detained across the country. Included among those arrested was the aforementioned opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
These arrests were based on legislation that was originally passed in 2004, then bolstered by President Putin in 2012 and 2014. The original law obligated citizens organizing demonstrations of more than one person to notify local authorities who (theoretically) would only be allowed to prohibit or forcefully relocate a protest if public safety was a major concern. The altered law makes holding any sort of protest, even a single person picket, without the express permission of the government, illegal. The permission is contingent upon location of the protest, as well as its purpose and number of attendees. Offenders face fines, detention for a maximum of 15 days, or five years in prison (upon the third breach of the law).
The authorities use this law (and its public safety provision) to suppress demonstrations in Russia. Protest permits are denied on the grounds of blocking traffic, or access to court and government buildings, among other arbitrary reasons. If permission is granted, oftentimes the protests are limited to isolated locations, far outside the city center. This defeats the purpose of many anti-government demonstrations that seek political action or attention. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, criticized this week’s “absolutely forbidden protest action,” arguing that Russia’s “citizens…probably out of ignorance, did not want to use the alternative venues” that were offered to Navalny and his political organization. Navalny’s decision to hold the protest outside of the government-approved locale reflects the rising opposition to Putin’s Kremlin, especially amongst younger Russians. They look to the West as a pillar of democratic freedom, an ideal that they believe Russia should strive for and achieve.
As of now, however, Russia continues to suppress the democratic freedoms and human rights that many desperately desire. Out of 180 countries, Russia ranks a lowly 148 on the World Press Freedom Index. They have also consistently been on the Human Rights Watch List for repressing the the press as well as speech and activity of their citizens. In an increasingly open world, the Russian people are growing frustrated with the lack of progress towards freedom, particularly freedom of expression. As opposition mounts, many in the international community wonder how these tensions will affect the upcoming 2018 Presidential elections.
If President Putin is re-elected (and based solely on his approval ratings—around 80%—it is likely he will be), there may be an overwhelming response from those who oppose both him and the policies of his Kremlin. If there appears to be any sort of fraud involved in the electoral process itself, that response will swell. This week’s protests, which were just a reaction to financial corruption allegations, consisted of only around 20,000 individuals. The response to deep-set fraud would be tantamount; the number of anti-government demonstrators would be unprecedented. Based on the Kremlin’s reactions to small scale unauthorized protests, we can postulate that a demonstration of that size would lead to hundreds, even thousands of arrests across Russia. Those arrests would spark more protests, which in turn would lead to more arrests. It is a never-ending cycle.
Russia must alter its policy towards freedom of assembly. By prohibiting citizens from expressing their views, they further delegitimize themselves in the eyes of their opposition. Russia’s repressive activities also injure their standing on the world stage. Countries that are known to abuse human rights are viewed as untrustworthy and, most importantly, undemocratic. What follows are negative consequences: in most cases, economic sanctions. In order to positively increase its engagement with the West, Russia must reevaluate their strategy at home and abroad.