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Russia's Protest Movement Is Back (to Usual)

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past year: the Russian protest movement—which sprung to life in December 2011—has collapsed. The most trusted [ru] figure of the 2011-2012 protests, Leonid Parfenov, is on television selling American toothpaste [ru]; the opposition's most popular blogger, Rustem Adagamov, faces pedophilia allegations from his ex-wife; and a December 15, 2012, unsanctioned march on the FSB's headquarters attracted a measly fraction of the hundred thousand Muscovites who demonstrated a year earlier. In other words, Russia's opposition—as it's been known throughout the Putin years—is back to usual.

Take as a case in point the debate surrounding the creation of “Hyde Park” inspired Speakers’ Corners in Moscow. Late last month, the city's legislature passed a measure [ru] to create two [ru] such spaces, where Muscovites will be free to gather for demonstrations without a permit. (Three days advance “notification” is required, however.) The politics of permits and rally sites has long been the crux of Russian protest organization. The pattern is simple: the opposition requests access to some central node of the city; the municipal government refuses and suggests a less central alternative; the opposition claims that their civil right to assembly is being trampled; and they then either take or walk away from the deal being offered. At the outset of the December 2011 protests, there was just such a scenario (albeit behind closed doors, in a meeting that's now frowned on as a betrayal of sorts), and the protesters agreed to compromise.

Gorky Park in Moscow, main entrance, 28 July 2006, photo by Nate Edwards, CC 2.0.

The opposition's willingness to compromise on demonstration locations seems to be related closely to the protest movement's popularity. At the peak of the so-called “snow revolution,” organizers accepted venues at Bolotnaia Square and Prospekt Sakharov—both separated by water or not insignificant distance from the Kremlin. The symbolism of being relegated to the city's periphery was powerful, but it was only after the movement began to falter that leaders reverted to the obstinacy of past oppositionist efforts, like Other Russia and Strategy 31, when no sanctioned rally site would do.

So, no, the protest movement's leaders have not welcomed the arrival of Speakers’ Corners in Moscow parks. Prominent oppositionists have said the locations are too far from the center. Currently, the city is planning to open two such areas, one in Gorky Park and another in Sokolniki Park. The latter park, for instance, is situated near Moscow's outskirts. Gorky Park, on the other hand, is a major hub of Moscow life, attracting families and tourists from far and wide. The city's Department of Culture actually conducted an online poll [ru] last year, asking the public where it wanted to base these Hyde Park clones. A piddling 1,400 people participated, and Bolotnaia Square captured more than 55% of the votes. (Gorky and Sokolniki parks each captured 13% of the electorate.) Luzhniki Stadium, the runner-up choice of those 1,400 brave Internet voters, is actually located over four miles from the Kremlin. The main entrance to Gorky Park, on the other hand, is just 2.5 miles south of the Kremlin. (In London, at the original Hyde Park, the official Speakers’ Corner is 2.3 miles from the Houses of Parliament.)

Of course, the Moscow legislature's Hyde Park initiative wouldn't be a Russian legal effort if it didn't have a few illiberal quirks. Rallies at the “Hyde Parks” are not allowed to use special audio or video equipment, or construct any stages. The legislation also bans [ru] car-caravan protests (like the one the opposition organized in January 2012) inside Moscow's traffic-congested Garden Road. The city's Duma also intensified limitations to the practice of “single-person pickets,” where protesters gather individually and pretend to demonstrate without group coordination. Those kind souls now have to stand at least 50 meters apart, or they face arrest and fines.

And then there's the very concept of a Speakers’ Corner. A nineteenth century English invention, Hyde Park's open forum for public discussion was a hotbed for demonstrations for years before the Parliament formally granted the space its special legal status. As if to showcase Russia's fetish for statism, Moscow's Hyde Park parallel has been entirely top-down. The city even conducted a poll specifically addressing the question of location, and then promptly ignored the results. The public's weak feedback, moreover, also demonstrates an utter lack of interest in a free speech zone.

The opposition's leaders, too, have been extremely dismissive. Eduard Limonov has promised to ignore any Hyde Park clones in Moscow, telling [ru] Kremlin-friendly newspaper Vzgliad:

Как дрессированные кошки? Конечно, мы не пойдем. Мне кажется, большинство политических организаций не будет туда ходить. Гордость возобладает, я думаю.

[Go to these parks] like trained cats? Of course we won't go. And it seems to me that most political organizations won't go. Pride will win out, I think.

Oppositionist Coordinating Council member Andrei Piontkovsky told [ru] Voice of America that the modern-day Hyde Park has become a romping grounds for “freaks” and no longer has any relationship to free speech, which can't be confined to special “corners”:

Нынешнее законодательство предусматривает очень жесткое наказание не только за организацию, но и за участие в несанкционированных митингах, и я вижу явный вектор движения от авторитарного курса к тоталитарному.

The current legislation stipulates very high penalties not just for the organization but also participation in unsanctioned rallies, and I see an obvious motion vector from an authoritarian to a totalitarian course.

The idea of bringing a version of Hyde Park to Moscow is not a new one. President Medvedev supported [ru] the notion as far back as April 2009, and Vladimir Putin restarted [ru] the momentum last February. In May 2012, journalist Vladimir Pozner wrote on Ekho Moskvy's blog to offer cautious support [ru] for the plan, provided that other forms of protest would still be permitted elsewhere in Moscow:

Если это искреннее устремление московских властей создать площадку для дискуссий, если они правда хотят этого – флаг им в руки.

If the Moscow authorities sincerely aspire to create this platform for discussion—if they really want this—then more power to them.

Pozner's attitude is justifiably cautious, particularly in the current legislative environment, where every month brings a new Duma initiative to “tighten the screws” on protesters and Kremlin critics. But even such tentative interest in a Moscow Hyde Park is rare among the opposition's leaders today. That spirit of compromise has withered and the movement has grown desperate for a fight that might arm it with a few new martyrs.

In a park open to all manner of free speech, oppositionists are naturally terrified that they might find themselves among “the freaks.” Scarier still, some Russians might decide that's where they belong.

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