ROAR: “Speakers’ Corner” proposed instead of holding opposition rallies

Opposition leaders do not support the idea of closing Triumfalnaya Square for protests and other events as the Public Board of the Moscow Police discusses the dispersal of the latest rally.

Human rights activists, politicians and the leadership of the Moscow police are continuing to analyze the tough actions police took against the unauthorized rally on Triumfalnaya Square on May 31. They are also trying to seek ways to calm opposition groups that do not want to change the place of their events.

Russia’s human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin accused law enforcement agencies of acting “extremely toughly and rudely” and insisted that the Interior Ministry should investigate the actions taken against the rally.

In addition, human right activists have demanded Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s resignation and punish the police officers who used force. More than one hundred people were detained and several people were injured during the incident on Triumfalnaya Square.

Following the events on the square, journalist Aleksandr Artemyev was detained by police and injured. “He was on Triumfalnaya Square in his spare time, but that is no reason to break his arms,” Mikhail Mikhailin, a Public Board member and the editor of the online newspaper told Interfax.

The majority of members of the Public Board who gathered for the meeting on June 8 recognized the police’s actions during the rally as “ungrounded and harsh,” Kommersant daily said. They also suggested that Artemyev be treated in a hospital of the Interior Ministry.

The extraordinary meeting of the board was dedicated to the incident with the journalist. At the same time, human right activists expected more. They were disappointed, however, “because they had not received any guarantees that the next rally in support of the freedom of assembly would not be break up in the same cruel way,” the daily said.

The Moscow police is continuing its own investigation into the events. “If it becomes clear who took the decision for such a rough dispersal of the rally, the issue of this official’s dismissal should be raised,” Mikhailin said.

The Public Board is allowed to issue recommendations to the Moscow police’s leadership. Among the members of the council are public and religious figures, journalists, veterans of the Interior Ministry and human rights activists.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group and one of the organizers of the rally on Triumfalnaya Square, believes that police acted on May 31 “in the cruelest way over the two years, the time such rallies have been held.” Alekseeva is also a member of the board.

According to Alekseeva, the meeting lasted for only an hour and rallies that will be held in the future were not discussed. “I thought many of the board’s members do not want to raise this issue,” she told Kommersant.

However, Aleksey Venediktov, Echo Moskvy radio’s editor-in-chief, has floated an idea of closing Triumfalnaya Square for all rallies, held by either the opposition or supporters of the government. There has not been immediate support for the proposal from different sides, however.

The square should not be a subject for political conflict, believes Venediktov, whose radio station often airs critical views of the government’s activities. All nine rallies that were held on the square by supporters of the freedom of assembly were banned, but Moscow authorities allowed other organizations to gather for their events at the same place.

Human rights activists complain that youth organizations supporting policies of the government and the ruling United Russia party are always allowed to hold their events despite the fact that they may also hinder traffic.

The issue was raised by rock singer Yury Shevchuk during his discussion with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the eve of the rallies in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution that allows people the right to assemble peacefully.

Putin described the broadcast of his conversation with Shevchuk in mass media as “a sign of democracy and freedom.” “We discussed democracy, including freedom of press with this artist, this musician,” Putin told AFP and France 2. “But our discussion was broadcast on all channels of Russian television.”

For organizers of the rallies from different opposition groups Triumfalnaya Square has become a symbolic place. Politician and writer Eduard Limonov, who once floated the idea of such events, believes the decision to close the square for protesters will play into the authorities’ hands.

“Mister Venediktov is demanding that the Constitution be amended and the state of emergency be introduced on a particular square,” Limonov told Kommersant. “This proposal is advantageous to the authorities who want to remove us from the square, and we will not support this,” he stressed.

The organizers of the March of Dissent have said they would file a request to hold the rally on Triumfalnaya Square on July 31. However, they are certain that the Moscow city authorities will reject the application in favor of an event held by some pro-government organizations.

It appears that Triumfalnaya Square will continue to divide political opponents. Director Fyodor Bondarchuk described the protesters as “hooligans.” Police should not be lashed out at, he said. “It defends our law and our rights, it defends us,” quoted him as saying.

“Policemen from Triumfalnaya Square are real human rights activists, unlike those who call themselves by this name,” Bondarchuk said.

To calm down passions, some believe Moscow needs its own Speakers’ Corner similar to that in London’s Hyde Park. The idea was discussed for some time, but then forgotten. Mayor Yury Luzhkov a year ago noted that such a corner may be organized in Gorky Park, Interfax news agency reported.

However, many opposition figures did not support the proposal because in this case they will have to abandon Triumfalnaya Square. They also consider another option unacceptable – to gather on Bolotnaya Square.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review