A persuasive show of people power

Power to the people: up to 85,000 protesters gathered in Moscow on December 10 to demonstrate against what they saw as a rigged State Duma election. About 50,000 police and troops were on duty but the event passed off peacefully. Source: Photoshot /

Power to the people: up to 85,000 protesters gathered in Moscow on December 10 to demonstrate against what they saw as a rigged State Duma election. About 50,000 police and troops were on duty but the event passed off peacefully. Source: Photoshot /

The December 10 rally was so well organised and free of violence that it avoided all the pitfalls that normally result in clashes with police.

Russia has not seen such an upsurge of political activism since the early Nineties. In Moscow, between 25,000 and 85,000 people joined the rally on December 10 to protest against what they considered rigged State Duma elections. Similar actions took place all over the country and abroad. Pro-Kremlin activists held their own rallies but the turnout was much smaller.

During the protests on December 5, the day after the poll, up to 1,000 were detained, including leading opposition activists. But at the demonstration on December 10, the crowd was exceptionally peaceful and no one was arrested. There were no reports of violence.

Article 31 of the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and a notification-based procedure for protests, but in practice organisers of demonstrations are required to obtain a written permit from the local authorities. In Moscow, the Mayor’s office is authorised to issue such permits.

The authorities say that 
permits are necessary because big demonstrations might inconvenience other citizens, for example by causing traffic jams.

An application for a street action must indicate the place and number of participants. If the number of people that turns up exceeds the permitted figure, the organisers are liable to a fine. But this is likely to be a nominal sum. The first post-election protest rally held on December 5 at Chistiye Prudy was joined by 8,000 people instead of the declared 300: the organisers were fined 1,000 roubles ( £ 20) for exceeding the number.

The venue of rallies has long been a subject for bickering between the organisers and the authorities. Moscow City Hall may simply refuse to allow the requested venue and propose another, less visible alternative, which is usually further from the city centre. Non-parliamentary opposition groups often challenge the City Hall decision, citing their legal rights under Article 31.

Protesters punished

The police ruthlessly disperse any unsanctioned rallies, such as those organised by opposition movements on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square. If protesters resist, they are liable for a 1,000 rouble fine or 15 days’ arrest by court ruling. In practice, that punishment is sometimes applied even to passers-by who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as was the case during the December 5 rally at Chistiye Prudy. According to witnesses, someone in the crowd suggested marching towards the Central Election Commission building. To do so, the marchers broke through the special forces chain and the police started arresting everyone indiscriminately. One of those detained was Fyodor Amirov, a pianist and winner of many musical prizes, who was returning home from a concert and was, by chance, close to the protesters. He spent four days under arrest because the courts could not handle such a large number of detainees, and was only released after the musical community intervened.

Journalists linked with a particular rally are also occasionally detained by the police. They are usually later released with apologies.

Charging protesters for resisting arrest gives the police the power to detain them for up to 48 hours before the case is handed over to the courts. Under the law, the detention cell must have at least two square metres of floor space per detainee. If people detained for more than three hours stay at the police station overnight, they must be given a bed, food and water. In reality, these standards have not always been observed, eyewitnesses say. During the first rallies, police stations were overcrowded: many of those detained had to be driven around Moscow in circles for hours before space could be found at a 
police station.

The organisers of the December 10 rally expected to be arrested because, until the last moment, their permit only allowed 300 protesters. Before the rally took place, information was posted on the internet to help ensure the event took place safely. There was advice about how to behave during the rally, how to help people in difficulty and where to call if problems occurred. Centres were set up to collect and spread information.

The authorities, for their part, were also preparing themselves: about 50,000 police and Interior Ministry troops were deployed during the street actions on December 10. Many people attribute the absence of disturbances and arrests, first, to the fact that the police had noticed that the protesters were not bent on rioting and were in a peaceful mood. Second, 
police tend to feel more comfortable with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens rather than what they see as a group of professional trouble-makers.

In addition, some officers in the police chain said they also did not believe that the votes had been counted honestly and partly shared the protesters’ views. Most importantly, realising the rally would be exceptionally large, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev both stressed that the citizens had the right to voice their opinions.

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