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Russian protests

June 6, 2012

Against the backdrop of new anti-Putin protests, the Russian parliament has tightened the laws on the right to assembly and protest. Opposition members and human rights activists have criticised the move.

Russian police clshing with protesters outside the parliament building
Image: dapd

The Russian Internet is seething. Whether on Facebook, Twitter or on the blogger platform LiveJournal, the Russian parliament's decision to tighten laws on the right to assembly is being hotly debated.

"It's just a pyrrhic victory," wrote the blogger Andrej Malgin on the website of the Kremlin-critical radio broadcaster Echo of Moscow. The implementation of the changes to law will allow the domestic political situation in Russia "to explode." The co-founder of the civil society group League of Voters, Dmitri Oreskin is of a similar opinion. "It's clear that those in power have no concrete answer to the call for fair trials and fair elections and are simply trying to silence protestors," Oreskin told DW.

Penalties softened

The ruling party United Russia pushed through multiple changes to the law during a nine-hour marathon sitting in the State Duma, all of which relate to the right to assembly. Participators in public protests and other gatherings can now expect a fine of between 250 and 7000 euros ($310 - $8,760) if, for example, people are injured during a demonstration or damage to property occurs. Civil servants can expect fines double this amount. Businesses can also be fined up to 25,000 euros ($31,300).

Vladimir Putin standing in front of steps at the Russian White House
Putin is likely to sign the new legislation on the right to assemblyImage: Reuters

As an alternative to the fines, community work is also being proposed in future. Whoever can't or won't pay the fine will be forced to work 200 hours for the community - for example, sweeping the streets of Moscow. The punishments were much harsher in the original proposals. But after a wave of criticism from the public, plans for higher fines were abandoned. A member of congress from United Russia, Saled Omarov, said that this indicated the "humane attitude" of those in power.

Criticism from the human rights council

The State Duma appeared to be short on time. The changes to the law were pushed through unusually quickly, according to observers. The opposition party A Just Russia had already made a failed attempt to delay the process with hundreds of amendments. But the new laws were already signed off by the Federation Council - the upper house of the Russian parliament - just a few hours after the Duma had passed them.

The State Duma building
The State Duma passed the new legislation unusually quicklyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

At the last minute, the Human Rights Council tried to get the Russian President to stop the new laws beings passed. The Council leader Mikhail Fedotov wrote that the decision by the Duma was an "error." Tighter laws on the right to assembly would lead to "grave human rights abuses and the further entrenchment of existing conflicts within society." But the leader of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, said that "for some reason or other," Fedotov's letter had not been received on Wednesday.

The new laws will now be handed to President Vladimir Putin to sign. His press officer explained that Putin would check them in detail. In the opinion of the President, the rights and freedoms of citizens should not be limited, Putin's spokesman said.

Adding fuel to the fire

The tightening of laws on the right to assembly were agreed just a few days before a massive protest is due to take place in Moscow. The opposition has plans for a new "March of Millions" on Russia Day on June 12. It probably won't be millions, but it could well be tens of thousands.

Crowds on the March of Millions
There was a March of Millions at the beginning of MayImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The wave of protests, stemming from the allegations of fraud following the parliamentary elections in December 2011, has died down in the past few months. The tightening of laws relating to the right of assembly may well give protestors new incentive, according to observers in Russia. "People shouldn't be prevented from airing their views publically," the leader of the Left Front and protest organizer Sergei Udaltsov told DW. He's certain that the protests could well lead to mass unrest.

Moscowlawyer Vadim Prochorov, who repeatedly represents the opposition in court, believes that sections of the opposition movement could become radicalized. However, a section of the urban middle-classes could also retreat from the protests due to the threat of harsher penalties, he said.

Author: Roman Goncharenko / hw
Editor: Michael Lawton