As the Russian Duma rushes through a bill that will drastically raise fines for taking part in an unsanctioned political meeting, more than two dozen people were arrested outside the parliament today for protesting the hike, which activists say will raise the fines to cost-prohibitive levels, chilling most forms of public activism.
Among those hauled away by police was the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Sergei Mitrokhin, who says that he and other activists were only standing on the street and handing out leaflets advertising a legally-permitted political protest due to take place later in the morning. Reached on his cellphone, Mr. Mitrokhin said authorities were trying to prevent activists from carrying out even the most basic activities that are considered normal in any democratic society.
"This is how things are going. Soon we will not be able to hold mass meetings or even any sort of street gathering," he says. "The law under preparation is the law of a dictatorship; the crackdown is already underway, not only in Moscow but around the regions of Russia as well."
The bill that's being hurried through its final two readings by the pro-Kremlin majority will impose fines on individuals of 20,000 roubles ($660), or up to 50 hours of community labor, and registered organizations up to 300,000 roubles ($10,000) if any "disorder" takes place, even during the course of a legally-permitted rally. Fines for unsanctioned meetings, even flash mob-type protests, will go up to 200,000 roubles ($6,600). If any injuries take place in the course of public disorders, fines will grow immensely – reaching up to 1 million roubles ($33,000) for organizers.
The potentially steep fines have activists voicing the need to band together. "We need to stress our continuing commitment to peaceful methods," writes Ilya Yashin, a leading protest organizer, in the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta. "And (in the face of the new laws) we'll have to realize the slogan 'one for all and all for one' in practice. In light of the rise in penalties, we must agree among ourselves that if one of us has to pay a huge fine, we'll all join our efforts to collect the money."
Supporters of the draft law say it corresponds with international norms and fills a legislative hole in Russia, where participants in opposition rallies have traditionally displayed astonishingly peaceful and orderly behavior, at least compared to European protests, where Molotov cocktails, shop-window trashing, car burning and pitched battles with police are often the order of the day.
But everyone was shocked when a downtown Moscow rally on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration last month turned violent after a few protesters allegedly provoked police, who charged the crowd with tear gas and batons, and arrested over 600.
"I wouldn't agree that this law has a repressive character, but rather that it's similar to laws in Europe and the US, which impose tough penalties on those who create disruptions during mass meetings," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, a Moscow think tank.
"We needed a law like this, because our previous experience is no guide to the future. Massive gatherings can create serious problems, even those with no political character, like sport events. Meetings should be meetings, and should not change direction. This law has nothing to do with dictatorship, it's just a measure to make organizers feel responsible for the actions of people they have summoned into the street," Mr. Orlov says.
Critics say the law is being rammed through the Duma by the ruling United Russia party virtually without discussion. They say authorities are determined to have the additional legal tools it provides to punish protesters in place by the end of this week, in order to cast a chill over the next big sanctioned opposition rally, which is slated for June 12.
"There has been no debate about this draft law. They are just rushing it through," says Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the left-wing Fair Russia party, which opposes the legislation. "We are getting ready for the worst. We think this is a law that's appropriate to a police state that's evolving into a dictatorship. We're trying to fight it, but it's awfully hard in this environment."
According to an analysis of the first draft of the law by the international monitoring group Human Rights Watch, the legislation could be invoked by police to punish organizers of sanctioned rallies if any protesters commit even minor infractions, such as walking on park grass, littering, or allegedly interfering with traffic.
"Imposing large fines for violating rules on public events will have a chilling effect on peaceful assembly in Russia," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying. "The aim seems to be to curtail demonstrations rather than to properly regulate them."
Among other things, the proposed new rules will bar anyone who's been twice convicted of infractions to ever again be listed as an organizer of a political rally. It would also enshrine the rights of local authorities to create lists of municipal venues that cannot be used for protests.
Until now, Moscow officials have employed subterfuges to prevent opposition groups from gathering at symbolically-important downtown locations. For example, after several small meetings at the central Triumph Square, authorities initiated "repairs," keeping the entire area fenced off from the public for more than a year – though no repairs have taken place.
"What is basically objectionable about this law is that, out of all possible threats to society, it singles out the threat of disorders at mass rallies and massively raises the penalties," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer who works with the opposition Solidarity movement.
"How can it be that the punishment for some petty infraction committed at a protest rally is greater than that for some minor criminal offenses? Of course big gatherings of people are difficult, by their very nature, to regulate administratively. But there is a general principle followed in most democratic societies that 'everything that's not specifically prohibited is permitted.' This draft law seems to be based on the premise that everything is prohibited unless it is specifically permitted."