MOSCOW - Russia's federal government, which has instituted its own new public order decrees, is starting to be concerned that the outer regions of the country are cracking down on civil society protests a little too enthusiastically.
Regional leaders took part in a meeting last month of vice-governors with the presidential administration to discuss laws regarding mass protests. And indeed, several of the regional laws, which were enacted after the federal government adopted strict laws about protest and other ‘mass’ events, were described as too severe.
Vladimir Putin’s administration has suggested that the regional governments should consider a more liberal approach that puts more emphasis on prevention and the resolution of conflicts before they developed into mass discontent.
The regions had to enact new laws regarding mass protests in order to come into compliance with the changes made by the Duma this spring, which among other things increased the punishment for unauthorized events. The process of compliance is a slow one for the regional authorities, but in those places where new rules have been adopted, they have generally chosen the harshest version possible among the options outlined in the federal law.
For example, in the Kemerovsky region, between Novosibirsk and Kasnoyarsk, a new law was adopted in July with minimal discussion. The law allows individuals to picket, only if there is at least a 50-meter distance between each person picketing. All mass actions are forbidden where they would interfere with residents' access to transport, social infrastructure, everyday goods, pedestrian or motor traffic.
"Principles of democracy..."
Moreover, the list of specific places where mass action is forbidden is so exhaustive that it is hard to imagine an area that such a rally could occur. Any action with more than 100 participants has to be authorized, and is not allowed to have more than one person per every two square meters. The law says that any protest planned to take place near a government building would have to abide by separate rules, but it has yet to specify what those rules might be.
There is a similar situation in the Ivanovo region, located about 400 kilometers east of Moscow, where the number of places excluded from protests is so extensive that there is only one place in the urban center that could possibly be used for protests. In fact, that is exactly what the regional government wanted.
“The freedom for some people to have an active political life should not interfere with the quiet enjoyment of others in the city. That is one of the principles of democracy," the region’s governor said. "One place for protests is enough for a small regional capital.”
Now the regions are thinking about the hints coming from Moscow. The governor of the Ivanovo region says that the laws there might be liberalized. Other governors are saying that they will throw all their resources into prevention. “Not big protests, but round tables and coordination councils with members of the government. I am going to insist on that kind of work,” said one of the regional government members in the Novosibirskovo region.
Whether or not the government is showing some inventiveness in its fight against protests, or whether it is actually just going to continue as before with iron-fisted crackdowns, will become clear soon enough. The opposition is planning several Russia-wide protests in the fall, including a “March of the Millions.”