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Rosbalt, April 1, 2004

Are Meetings a Thing of the Past?

Aleksei Levchenko, Rosbalt. Translated by Alex Anderson

The Duma has adopted a very interesting new law. Deputies have decided to severely regulate public meetings, marches and pickets. After carefully reading it, critics of the new legislation have concluded that the right to hold any mass meeting will now be in question

The law, 'On Gatherings, Meetings, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets,' was prepared by the government a year ago, but was not taken up by the Duma until after the presidential elections. If the explanatory notes attached to the legislation, which also emanated from the ministerial cabinet, are to be believed, it would seem rather strange that something of the sort had not been introduced earlier.

The reason why such legislation was deemed necessary has been given as 'the absence of any legislative norms for the conduct of such events.' In the opinion of the legislation's authors (real liberals by all appearance), the document 'prescribes the manner in which meetings may be held, and fully conforms to the Declaration of the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens.' It is even stranger that against such a remarkable initiative, the left, the Yabloko faction, and defenders of civil rights were all able to unite in opposition.

Upon a careful reading of the legislation, many interesting details become clear. Let us suppose that some citizen activist decides to organize an innocent picket, say against the oppression of household pets. To do so, he must no earlier than 15 days, and no later than 10, forward a request to the appropriate government agency and explain why such a picket is necessary. And here is where it gets interesting.

The document contains a provision according to which an official may refuse to grant permission for such an event if proper notice 'has not been submitted on time (logical, but let us read further), or has not been accepted by an agency of the executive branch or local government.'

'Any official may rightfully refuse permission to an unwelcome march or picket,' according to the independent deputy Segei Popov. 'So what happens is that if any government agency does not wish to accept notice for whatever reason, the mass meeting cannot take place.'

In addition, the reasons for a refusal are enumerated in the legislation. It seems that an official 'may rightfully refuse to accept notice if the goals and form of the event contradict the constitution of the Russian Federation, or broadly accepted norms of social morality and ethics.' But what exactly the term 'broadly accepted norms' means will apparently be decided by that same government agency.

Incidentally, let us grant that our activist citizen manages to find a good-hearted official who does not reject the request out-of-hand. But here is the catch -- our hero has decided to organize a picket outside the Duma building. Mistake. 'What do you mean, it isn't permitted?' asks our surprised citizen. 'I organize a picket there every year.'

It turns out that such a picket is not permitted outside the Duma because it is a federal agency. And the legislation clearly states that public events may not be held on grounds 'adjacent to presidential residencies, or on grounds or buildings occupied by federal agencies, governmental agencies of Russian Federation subjects, agencies of local government and representatives of foreign governments and international organizations.'

In connection with which, and in accordance with the very same legislation, what is meant by 'adjacent grounds' is determined by the executive government agency or the local authorities. In other words, if an official decides that today the definition of what is adjacent to the Duma includes not only the street and the parking lot, but all of Ohotnii Ryad and Teatralnaya Square, with the Bolshoi Theater to boot, then our activist citizen will be allowed to hold a picket only on Lubyanka Square. And there, as everyone knows, lies a wholly different government agency(that is Federal Security Services headquarters).

Meanwhile, the Yabloko party, together with a range of human rights and environmental organizations, have begun a public campaign called 'Civil Society Against a Police State,' which will call on citizens to acts of civil disobedience within the parameters of the Russian constitution. And the first such act in this campaign was an unsanctioned picket in front of the Duma March 31, specifically aimed at the new law.

'After the law on meetings and marches is adopted, the only place where they will be permitted will be in the woods or in the desert,' Communist Party Duma member Aleksandr Kuvaev, who regularly organizes communist demonstrations outside the Duma, told Rosbalt.

Incidentally, government agencies are not the only restricted areas. Meetings will not be permitted next to dangerous or harmful factories (of concern to the 'Greens'), and on transportation thoroughfares. A separate presidential arrangement regulates public events on Red Square. If everything is in order and all hurdles overcome, then be so kind as to conclude your event no later than 10:00 P.M.

In voting on the proposed legislation, deputies representing the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Rodina[Motherland] party did not support it. However, even without their support the law was adopted because it was supported by United Russia, which controls an absolute majority in parliament.

More than likely, after the legislation is adopted it will be contested by human rights organizations in the Constitutional Court. At any rate, that is what the head of the movement For Human Rights, Lev Ponomarev, told the radio station Moscow Echo on Wednesday.


See also:

Freedom of Speech

Human Rights

Rosbalt, April 1, 2004

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