MOSCOW — Russia’s opposition has long played a cat-and-mouse game with the state, using seemingly any and all legal means at its disposal to skirt increasingly restrictive laws on public assembly and protest.
When authorities banned unsanctioned street rallies in 2014, for example, activists continued to get their message out by organizing “strolls” through major cities, or gathering to “feed pigeons” in central squares. When even these brought mass arrests, demonstrators lined up outside government buildings to stage single-person pickets, the one form of spontaneous street protest permissible under Russian law.
“The ingenuity of some citizens is at a very high level,” lawmaker Dmitry Vyatkin told the Kommersant newspaper this week.
In response, Vyatkin and other pro-Kremlin lawmakers introduced draft legislation that would leave little room for such improvisation, raising the stakes for Russia’s embattled opposition ahead of crucial elections to the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, next year.
Bills authored by Vyatkin would recognize picket lines as illegal public demonstrations, ban protests outside buildings that house law enforcement agencies, and introduce criminal liability for rally organizers who receive money from abroad. The proposed changes, Kremlin critics say, are indicative of a pattern that makes activism more and more fraught with danger.
“The trend is obvious,” Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician, told Current Time. “But ok, you ban us from breathing, from eating, you’ll ban everything, and then what? Will civil society accept that? Of course not.”
The former Soviet Union, which the Kremlin continues to claim as its sphere of influence, has in recent months been convulsed by political shocks ranging from mass protests violently suppressed by riot police in Belarus to the resumption of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that ended when Moscow mediated a cease-fire agreement earlier this month.
In Russia itself, demonstrations are on the rise — headlined by an intractable protest movement that has taken daily to the streets of Khabarovsk in the country’s Far East — compounding a sense in the capital that the political situation is volatile. And with the popularity of the ruling United Russia party plummeting, analysts say the Kremlin is resorting to lawfare in an effort to ensure it retains control of the political field.
“This is all preparation for the Duma vote,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter now working as a political consultant, said in written comments. “Without tightening the screws, the Kremlin can’t win.”
Also making its way through parliament is a bill targeting so-called foreign agents, a term the Kremlin uses to designate groups and individuals who receive financing from other countries. If passed, restrictions and prosecution could soon target mere affiliation with a “foreign agent,” and politicians seen as tied to such entities would be barred from running for office.
“This is quite simply a ban on a liberal opposition in Russia,” political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya wrote in a Telegram post analyzing the proposed legislation.
Last summer, thousands demonstrated in Moscow against the exclusion of independent candidates from elections to the city council, a movement that was violently dispersed by police and initiated a series of harsh court prosecutions against participants. Yulia Galyamina, one of the candidates banned from running in that election, said the bills are aimed at preventing a repeat of that protest wave, and described them as “acts of panic” by the state.
“They defy logical explanation,” she said in a phone interview. “Because it’s not laws that hold our authorities back.”
Yet the new bills, if they become law, would give the government even more instruments to muffle discontent and justify bans on mass gatherings. Russia already prosecutes citizens who criticize senior officials, and another new bill under discussion would allow authorities to fire schoolteachers who “incite actions that contradict Russia’s constitution,” a document that was revised this year after a dubious nationwide referendum encouraged and promoted by President Vladimir Putin.
The reading of bills criminalizing certain forms of protest also coincides with the passage of a law ensuring immunity from prosecution for former presidents, a move broadly viewed as an effort to safeguard Putin from criminal liability once he steps down. Putin’s current term ends in 2024, but the constitutional changes introduced this year allow him to seek two more six-year terms after that.
The flurry of controversial legislation also comes amid slipping approval ratings for Putin’s government, and an apparent uptick in protest sentiment. According to a September analysis by the Center for Social and Labor Rights, a Moscow-based NGO, the first half of 2020 saw almost 1,000 major protests in the country — 95 more compared to the same period last year.
Galyamina faces five years in prison in an ongoing trial on charges of repeatedly participating in illegal rallies, a case prosecuted on legal foundations that the new bills making their way through parliament would further strengthen and expand. But should public discontent reach a critical level, she’s convinced no amount of legislation will prevent unrest.
“If enough people are incensed, nothing will stop them from coming out,” she said.