Yet more sidesplitting, hyperbolic coverage of Boris Nemtsov’s arrest last week; the Russophobes are milking Nemtsov like he was Elsie, the Borden cow. As discussed here earlier, the objective of an activist in a protest is to be arrested; desirable media coverage is the result, with a better-than-even chance the state will come across as heavy-handed and brutal, and the activists will get plenty of sympathetic press. If the protest is in Russia, western media will do journalistic cartwheels, and make it sound like the standoff was the Slavic version of the Alamo.
Here’s my favourite quote, which sounds like it was torn from the pages of a Danielle Steel bodice-ripper: “This valiant, charismatic man could easily be making millions in business or on TV, but he has chosen instead to fight for his benighted country, to risk his comfort and indeed his life struggling to push it away from the neo-Soviet abyss.” There’s no evidence offered that this “valiant, charismatic man” could indeed be making millions in business or on TV, but quite a few people remember that this valiant charismatic man presided over the implosion of the Russian economy. Yup, that’d be the guy I’d want in charge of my millions, if I had any. For sure.
As you’re probably aware by now, Boris Nemtsov is getting behind public protest in a big way, and the protest in which he was recently arrested is one of the “31 strategy” series – in which demonstrators mobilize on the last day of each month having 31 days – to draw attention to their right to peaceful assembly. This is enshrined in the Russian constitution, under article 31. Commendably brief, it states “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.” However, Russian law – which of course is not the same thing as the constitution but must recognize it, says that organizers of a public protest – if will consist of more than one person – must notify city hall or the appropriate authority some days in advance.
This, too, should not be a problem. Except Nemtsov and his followers believe they do not need to do this, since their right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution. I quote from the article; “Activists say this gives them the right to hold protests without prior permission, which is regularly denied to opposition groups. Police habitually break up rallies not approved by the authorities.”
Nonetheless, protest groups often do contact city hall in advance, and say their demonstrations are always preempted by another event that wants to use the same space. Is it easy to stage an event like that with a few days notice, in a popular city square like Triumfulnaya Ploschad? Probably not. However, note in this example that the demonstrators – who did not have permission to stage a demonstration at this venue, carried on with it anyway in spite of the fact that a blood drive (staged by “pro-Kremlin youth”, of course) was underway already. Doubtless accident victims or patients who need blood as part of a surgical procedure would expire gladly, in the knowledge that freedom to demonstrate without prior permission was at stake.
My question, though, is this – if you can’t ever get permission to protest in Triumfulnaya Ploschad, why can’t you hold your protest somewhere else? The local authorities, who have jurisdiction over the legal requirement to clear public events through city hall, can’t reasonably put every venue big enough to hold 500 people (an upper limit, so far, for these protests) off limits. Is there precedent for this? On a smaller scale, yes. Note, please, that in this example the activists are protesting obligatory military service, which is also enshrined in the Russian Constitution (Article 59 (2)) – which Nemtsov and his followers insist trumps the law. Even so, the protesters in this case were politely asked to relocate their demonstration from in front of the Defense Ministry to nearby Gogol Boulevard, which they did. Nobody got their shirt ripped, their nose bloodied, or anything of the kind. Nobody was arrested.
In this example, even though organizers of the protest called it off, determined protesters in Kaliningrad took over and disrupted an agricultural fair that was already in progress on the site, in spite of having been offered a large stadium as an alternate. If a “pro-Kremlin” group behaved in such a fashion, it would bring shrieks of “Shame!!! Shame!!!” from Russophobes. Still, how many demonstrators got their shirts ripped and their noses bloodied? Apparently from this report, none. How many got arrested? Again, apparently, none.
Which brings me back to my original point – why insist on holding the protest in Triumfulnaya Ploschad, without the permission required by law, if you know it will result in police intervention? If you were leaning toward ” to get arrested and make a big scene for the TV cameras” as a response, I’d applaud your perspicacity.
Let’s get something straight here, in a logical progression, because it’s important. (1) Russian citizens are legally allowed, by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, to assemble peacefully without weapons for the purposes of demonstration: (2) There is a further legal requirement, under state law, to clear such demonstrations in advance with local authorities: (3) Boris Nemtsov and his followers insist on their right to break the law, because the Constitution overrides the law: (4) The consequences of publicly and defiantly flouting the law just because you don’t like it are arrest and confinement, and (5) Boris Nemtsov and his followers regularly clamor that Russia is in dire need of legal reform, because the country does not subscribe to the rule of law.
If you noticed that things jumped the rails toward the end of that sequence, good for you, because it makes no sense at all. Deliberately breaking the law sort of ruins your credibility (except with the western media and Russian press that plays directly to it) when you lift your tear-stained face to the sky and howl, “We need legal reform now!!!!”
Here’s a handy guide on how to conduct protests effectively, from someone who regularly argues that protest groups can’t get a fair hearing in Russia, including success stories on how protest groups who followed the rules forced the government to change – Julia Ioffe.
Because I’m getting tired of this subject, or at least this aspect of it, let’s take a look at the way demonstration is handled in other countries that have the constitutional right of free assembly. What? Protesters arrested? For blocking a downtown street? But aren’t you allowed to do that? Even if you’re not, who gives a rip what the law says? The Constitution says citizens have the right to free assembly – it doesn’t say “except for 4th Street Interchange”, or whatever. How about this? More than 15 (what the hell does “nearly 20” mean, anyway? Was a half-person arrested?) people arrested, including a Minister and head of the state NAACP, for demonstrating against inroads on diversity in schools? What’s going on over there in Nazi-land, anyway? And how about those repressive freedom-crushers in Canada? More than 900 people arrested, just because they demonstrated against the G20 summit. What? They were carrying weapons? Tennis balls and notebooks? Seriously? Freedom lies bleeding, folks – nothing to see here, return to your homes. Where the hell’s Boris Nemtsov when you need him?
Hey, Mr. Putin – get your jackboot off the peoples’ throat, and give us the rule of law, so we can interpret it as it suits us.
I realize Russia doesn’t have all the freedoms of the west, but you look just a little hypocritical when you argue for the rule of law out of one side of your mouth while loudly defending the right of selected individuals to break it from the other.