City Duma Rejects Call For Ban on Assemblies
Published: January 23, 2013 (Issue # 1743)
In a surprise move, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly last week refused to consider a controversial bill on amendments to the law on public assemblies that would effectively ban any protests in most of the city, including bedroom communities.
Backed by City Hall and pro-Kremlin party deputies, the proposed law would ban public assemblies on Palace Square, St. Isaac’s Square and Nevsky Prospekt. Rallies would also be banned within 200 meters from state administration buildings, state educational and health institutions, railway stations and platforms, bus and boat stations and airports, as well as within 100 meters from metro stations and adjacent territory.
The bill on assemblies was drawn up by United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov and submitted to the Legislative Assembly by City Governor Georgy Poltavchenko.
The assembly’s refusal to consider the bill caused a stir in the local media, because previously any bills proposed or supported by the authorities — including Milonov’s infamous “gay propaganda” ban — had all been passed by the Legislative Assembly indivertibly.
The Yabloko Democratic Party, A Just Russia and Communist Party deputies voted against the inclusion of the bill on the assembly’s agenda, while pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) backed it, with the exception of two deputies.
Alexander Kobrinsky, a Yabloko deputy and member of the Legislative Assembly’s Legislation Committee, believes that the authorities will attempt to push the amendments through again at a future session.
“But we made it quite clear that we don’t want to adopt it in its current form,” Kobrinsky said Tuesday.
“We received unexpected support from two members of the ruling coalition — United Russia and the LDPR — who realize that they will have to answer to their voters, because this law would drastically worsen things for citizens. They won’t even be able to gather to discuss problems of their district or courtyard, and I hope that the governor has enough common sense not to submit it in such a form again.”
Kobrinsky said that no march or rally would be possible in the city if the law is adopted.
“We’ll be left with nothing more than one-man pickets; you’ll be allowed to stand with a poster, and that’s all,” he said.
However, the lack of a new, harsher law did not prevent the authorities from refusing to authorize rallies or close down public assemblies.
The attempt to introduce the bill was taken soon after the police dispersed a group of teenagers who gathered for a snowball fight on the Field of Mars, arresting two for taking part in an “unauthorized assembly.”
Called “Snow Battle” and held annually, the snowball fight was organized via social networking sites and drew several dozen to the open space on Jan. 7. A video of the incident shows a police officer speaking into a megaphone to warn the teenagers that they are “committing mass presence and mass movement of citizens, qualified as a violation of public order.”
The teenagers, some of who were holding snowballs, reacted with surprise and giggles. Two 18-year-olds, Andrei Veselov and Valery Okunev, were detained and face hefty fines. Their cases are reportedly due to be heard in court later this month.
The right of freedom of assembly is the focus of Strategy 31, a campaign
of peaceful gatherings in defense
of this constitutional right held regularly across Russia, including in St. Petersburg.
The most recent local Strategy 31 rally held near Gostiny Dvor metro on Nevsky Prospekt on Dec. 31 was broken up as soon as protesters raised a banner reading “Freedom of Assembly; Always and Everywhere.”
Nine activists were arrested and after being held for up to two nights in a police precinct, most of them were fined from 10,000 to 20,000 rubles ($330-$660) for participating in an unauthorized rally and 500 to 1,000 rubles ($17-$33) for alleged failure to obey a police officer’s orders.
The demonstrators said they were acting in defense of the constitution, as arrests and refusals to authorize rallies violate both the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, which is ratified by the Russian Federation.