16 June 2020
Natalia Zvyagina, director of the Russian office of Amnesty International and Moscow Helsinki Group expert, on the right to peaceful assembly
Several days ago, the Russian Constitutional Court issued an unexpected ruling about the right of assembly. It concerned those places where street protests are forbidden and where they are allowed. They mentioned Hyde Parks — places for events of up to 100 people, where you can protest without approval. I know a fair amount about Hyde Parks. My friends and I have visited around a dozen Hyde Parks, and we checked their adequacy and minimum standards. The Hyde Parks we visited were in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Belgorod, Kursk, Lipetsk, Tambov, and other regions. Our results showed that only a few Hyde Parks pass as acceptable. Several of them were simply unsafe to visit. And suddenly, this ruling. People can protest only in Hyde Parks, and if they need another place to protest, they must substantiate this need extensively.
In wording complicated to the point of losing its legal precision, the judges shared precisely this message. I am referring to the ruling of the Russian Constitutional Court of 4 June 2020, № 27-P, “On the case of the constitutional review of Article 3.4 of the Samara region law ‘On the procedure for filing a notice to hold a public event and provision of conditions for citizens to exercise the right to conduct public events in Samara region’, on the basis of the complaint by N.P. Baranova, A.G. Kruglov and D.I. Stalin.”
We will take our cue from the media and political scientists and call them Hyde Parks, since the official name for them takes a whole paragraph to write. The language used reeks of limitations and obstacles: ‘Common areas specially allocated or adapted for the collective discussion of issues of social importance and the expression of public sentiment; as well as for the large-scale presence of people and the public expression of the public opinion regarding topical issues, predominantly of a socio-political nature.’
Also, why Hyde Parks? This isn’t a Soviet term, and it’s definitely not Slavic. Hyde Parks are in fact a British tradition. In the 1870s, the London authorities provided protesting workers and preachers of all stripes a place to gather in one of the city’s parks, Hyde Park. It wasn’t the entire park, just Speakers’ Corner (a corner for public speeches). By the way, there used to be a gallows there, where people actually spoke their last words. Later, many others spoke there, including Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and George Orwell. There is a sign indicating the spot, and it exists to this day. It’s conveniently located next to the underground. But Hyde Park today is a large recreational space — a park with a carousel, and a great spot for jogging. Protesters in London can go to crowded areas, like Trafalgar Square, and they have the favorite spot of activists, in front of the British Parliament building. The tradition of creating corners for speakers made its way around the world and thus found its way to Russia.
We visited not only capitals and regional centres, but also small towns, local hubs, where there should be Hyde Parks. Most often these are abandoned parks and stadiums. It felt like travelling in a time machine. Like in the city of Kotovsk in Tambov region, these parks sometimes have an indoor stage. They are dilapidated; but in large cities, other than Moscow, this is rare. In Stary Oskol, Belgorod region, one of these parks has an unusual convenience – a plank-and-hole toilet – but all the approaches to it are mined.
On the other hand, the squares in front of district administrative buildings are always landscaped with flowerbeds. But they really don’t want to see people protesting there. Instead of spots opposite the authorities’ headquarters, activists are offered Hyde Parks. That’s the case in Voronezh – where, by the way, there are very good Hyde Parks. One is even opposite the United Russia office, which is convenient in its own way. But the activists only got hold of it because until then all the rallies there were held on Lenin Square. Today the square is an empty car park. The governor and the representatives from the mayor’s office don’t see the activists. Which is intentional. And then, you can squeeze Hyde Parks into places that are hard to reach. In St Petersburg, the only Hyde Park that was in high demand, in the centre on the Field of Mars, was closed in 2017.
There’s one more little problem. Hyde Parks were invented and greenlighted eight years ago. They have simply been forgotten about. The list of ‘special places’ was drawn up by regional authorities, but town authorities decide on the disposal of sites. In Lipetsk, a Ferris wheel opened on the site of one of the Hyde Parks without regulatory permission. And at the time of our visit, a site in Tambov was fenced off and building works had started.
In the places where Hyde Parks are not forgotten, their numbers are being reduced. In several regional centres, such as Kursk, there were up to 11 Hyde Parks, one of them even next to the Dzerzhinsky memorial. In Voronezh, the Hyde Park on Soviet Square was removed from the list of special places immediately after the area was landscaped with flowerbeds and small fountains.
Hyde Parks everywhere are mostly positioned in places where activists would never have thought to protest. Far from the authorities; the farther out into the outskirts of the city the better. In Tambov, behind the activists there is a river, beyond that a forest, and in front of the protestors is an abandoned house with trees growing on the roof.
The Hyde Parks of the capital are a separate problem. It has been decided to close the Hyde Park that is located in a distant corner of Gorky Park, between a bridge and some concrete walls. And, for example, while it formally existed, delegates from the LGBT community were regularly expelled from it. The same thing happened with political activists in St Petersburg on the Field of Mars.
Formally the Hyde Park in the capital’s Sokolniki Park looks more like a square for walking aggressive dogs. A distant and empty corner of the park, fenced around its perimeter, with frames around the entrance. All right, so there is a stage. But people who come to rallies here have to stand in a long queue at the frames and do not have time to listen to the speeches from the stage. And the icing on the cake – I remind you that legally a Hyde Park is a place for holding rallies without prior notice – in Sokolniki rallies must be agreed (yes, yes, informing the authorities in advance of the place and time, the organisers, the form it will take, et cetera) not only with the mayor’s office, but with a particular person in the park administration office. Which is to say, it’s not really a Hyde Park. And here it is proposed that the activists of the capital, and of the whole country, are to be sent.
It’s hardly rocket science that people from all over the country go to Moscow to protest. But the judges of the Constitutional Court don’t know too much about that. They are not protestors themselves but, incidentally, they are not forbidden to do so. Their opposite numbers in Poland hold judges’ rallies. Ours, too, could demand the repeal of amendments to the Constitution to reduce the number of judges. But no. It’s easier for them to ban and limit something in order to demonstrate their loyalty. I wonder if there was a sole judge in post who disagreed and expressed a dissenting opinion.
The good news is that if activists can muster more than one hundred people, the Hyde Parks are not appropriate for them. That’s why thousands of marches are regularly held in Moscow. The more people are ready to take to the streets, the less they care about the strict rules for marshalling demonstrations in general, and actions at Hyde Parks in particular. If people from the regions are herded exclusively toward Hyde Parks and express their dissatisfaction with these limitations, then even more people will go to Moscow to protest. Demonstrations will be formed of legions from the provinces.
It is important that freedom of assembly does not exist within a spherical vacuum. There are specific rules and standards. International standards in the sphere of the right to freedom of assembly exhibit a rare stability. The vast majority of rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in this area under Article 11 show a very narrow range of variation.
There is also a universal, almost philosophical, but very practical aspect. Freedom of assembly is more than a right. It’s a freedom. Which is actually easier. Freedom of assembly refers to so-called negative rights. As opposed to positive rights, where the authorities need to do something to guarantee those rights. For example, hospitals must be established and their accessibility be maintained in a pandemic era to protect the right to life in an epidemic; or inclusive classes and other similar opportunities should be created. With the negative right to freedom of assembly nothing needs to be created but it simply must not be obstructed. And Hyde Parks are already a positive element. We’ve given you a platform right here.
Stop! If you’ve given us something here, be good enough to make it high quality. Not an abandoned park on the outskirts of town. But a place with good transport accessibility and infrastructure. Yes, there should also be benches, accessible public toilets, lighting, recently laid pavement surfaces, a stage and with good quality equipment, which if needed could be rented. Hyde Parks are the responsibility of town councils, not of the constitutional court. This should not be a barrier, but a nice bonus. The government and local authorities should not organise our Hyde Parks for us, but if they can bear it in mind, we as users will make high demands. First, build and equip a comfortable Hyde Park, wherever it is convenient for us, and then give us a call. And don’t use a stick, use a carrot. But it is up to the activists, not the authorities, to decide where this or that public event will be appropriate. And nothing can change the fact that it is almost always more convenient where there is the best chance of being heard: in front of the offices of the powers that be.
Freedom of assembly always and everywhere!