12 June 2022
By Boris Vishnevsky, politician, political commentator, deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, member of the Yabloko party, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize in the field of human rights
The author has vowed to analyse the legislative initiatives submitted to the State Duma, but it’s necessary to go back to previous ones. That is because the same old (with minor changes) brilliant creative team, which combines in itself United Russia, A Just Russia, LDPR and New People, has distinguished itself again. They had already drafted and introduced to the State Duma repressive laws, including one that makes it possible for any individual who does not enjoy official favour to be declared a ‘foreign agent.’
Senator Andrei Klimov, State Duma deputies Vasily Piskarev and Mikhail Delyagin, Andrei Lugovoi and Maria Butina, Rosa Chemeris and Andrei Alshevskikh – all the same ‘finest people in the city’ – have proposed ‘improving the regulation of the status of a foreign agent.’
This includes a ban on ‘foreign agents’ in educational activities, in the publication of materials intended for children, in the work of state and municipal educational organizations and in a number of other occupations.
And at the same time, in order not to have to act twice, although it has nothing to do with ‘foreign agents’, they want to see further restrictions on holding rallies and other public assemblies.
According to their vision, it will be forbidden to hold assemblies, rallies, marches and demonstrations near railway stations and quays, airports, the buildings and territories of educational organizations, medical organizations, organizations of social protection of the population, in religious premises, buildings and structures, or on land plots where such buildings and structures, including those belonging to religious organizations, are located.
And — the icing on the cake — the proposed places, where public activity will be banned, include ‘buildings of public authorities, as well as on ground directly adjacent to such buildings.’ In other words, they want to deprive citizens of the right to come to the meeting places of officials or deputies, whose decisions and actions they are dissatisfied with, and express their dissatisfaction to them there, and not somewhere in a remote forest.
I wonder if the authors of the bill read the decisions of the Constitutional Court? In 2019, the Constitutional Court assessed the legislation of the Komi Republic, which banned public protests within 50 metres of the entrance to buildings occupied by federal, regional and local government authorities. They ruled that this was ‘the introduction of an insurmountable barrier to the exercise on the territory of this republic of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly near any regional and municipal authorities, as well as any republican state institutions.’ And in 2020, the Constitutional Court specified that holding public events, as a rule, is associated with certain inconveniences for citizens who do not participate in them, but ‘such are the costs of the freedom of peaceful assembly in themselves and they cannot serve as a valid reason for refusing to hold public activity.’
Therefore, the authorities ‘are obliged to strive to take all measures in their power to hold the event in the place chosen by the organizers, and not to try, under any pretext, to find reasons justifying the impossibility of exercising the right to hold public events in the format specified in the notification.’
Of course, it is pointless to ask the zealous authors of this latest repressive bill whether they have read these (and other) decisions of the Constitutional Court. But it is useful to remember the situation with public activity in Soviet times, which are obviously being emulated today. Freedom of assembly and rallies, street processions and demonstrations was declared legal in both Soviet constitutions – 1936 and 1977.
The 1936 Constitution stated that these freedoms were guaranteed by law ‘in accordance with the interests of the workers and for the purpose of strengthening the socialist regime.’ They were ensured ‘by providing workers and their organisations with [access to] public buildings and streets.’
The 1977 Constitution guaranteed these freedoms ‘in accordance with the interests of the people and for the strengthening and development of the socialist regime,’ and their exercise was guaranteed by ‘the provision to workers and their organisations of public buildings, streets and squares.’
However, there were no laws establishing the rules for rallies and assemblies before the Perestroika period.
There were no procedures by which one could announce rallies and assemblies and obtain permits or approvals for them. All attempts to hold unsanctioned (in today’s terminology) rallies – to express dissatisfaction with the authorities – were met with immediate detentions at best, and at worst, as in 1962 in Novocherkassk, dispersed with firearms.
Regulations of this kind first appeared in the country 35 years ago. In May 1987 the Executive Committee of the Leningrad City Council approved the Temporary Regulations for assemblies, rallies, marches, demonstrations and other mass events in the streets, avenues, parks, gardens and squares of Leningrad. In August, similar regulations were adopted in Riga and Moscow. And in July 1988, there was a Decree of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (which had the force of law) ‘On the procedure for organising and holding assemblies, rallies, marches and demonstrations in the USSR.’
It was established that an application to hold an assembly, rally, street procession or demonstration should be submitted to the executive committee of the corresponding local Council of People’s Deputies. Such applications can be made by ‘authorised representatives of labour collectives of enterprises, institutions and organisations, bodies of cooperative and other public organisations, associations of those engaged in joint free-time activities and individual groups of citizens’ who have reached the age of eighteen. The application should be made ‘in writing no later than ten days before the scheduled date of the event’ and specify the purpose, form, location of the event or routes of movement, the time of its beginning and end, the estimated number of participants, names including patronymics of the authorised persons (organisers), their place of residence and work (study) and the date of application.
The relevant executive committee were to consider the application and notify the organisers of the decision no later than five days in advance. At the same time, it could ‘if necessary, propose to the applicants a different time and place of the event.’ The executive committee could prohibit an assembly, rally, march, or demonstration only if ‘the purpose of holding them contradicted the Constitution of the USSR, the constitutions of the Union and autonomous republics, or threatened the public order and safety of citizens.’
In general, these rules of the late Soviet period, under which many public assemblies were held in 1987-1991, were much more liberal than the current ones.
And the authorities were much less afraid of public assemblies back then.
However, if events in Russia develop in the same direction as they are now, it won’t matter if more bans on rallies are introduced. And if the situation begins to seriously change, these bans will be scrapped, along with many others that have been adopted in recent years.