On Saturday, a conference of independent lawmakers was broken up by the police. Nearly 200 people from 56 regions, who got together in Moscow, were detained and taken to police stations. All were released the same evening. They will be fined for alleged ties to an ‘undesirable’ organisation.

 

Among those detained were senior leaders of the pro-democracy organisation Open Russia Andrei Pivovarov and Anastasia Burakova, former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman, city deputies Ilya Yashin and Yulia Galyamina, and prominent opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza.

The forum, which was to be over two days, lasted just 40 minutes. After speeches from Yashin and Roizman, police entered the hall and announced that all attendees would be detained, an unprecedented move in response to such gatherings.

The forum was to discuss election strategy ahead of those later this year, and local level projects. The organisers, United Democrats, are the joint project of politician Dmitriy Gudkov, and Open Russia chair Anastasia Burakova. Their mission statement describes their goal to ‘support competitive elections’. They do not help one party specifically, but any figure who aims to promote democratic views in Russian politics.

On Twitter, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken criticised the ‘dubious grounds’ on which they were detained, in a call to end to ‘persecution of independent voices’.

Sources in the Moscow Mayor’s office of the news site RBC discovered that the FSB were behind the arrests rather than the city authorities. According to the sources, the federal authorities had taken responsibility in what they called a ‘frightening action before the Duma campaign’. In September, elections will be held for the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament. In a recent poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 27 percent of the respondents favoured the ruling United Russia party.

An ‘undesirable’ organisation

The definition of ‘undesirable’ organisation arose in 2015 alongside the law ‘on measures to influence persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation’. It allows the authorities to target and restrict organisations that received foreign funding, while prosecuting their members.

Article 20.33 (conducting activities of a foreign NGO described as ‘undesirable’), for which most at the forum were charged, carries a fine of only between 5,000-15,000 roubles (about 57-172 euros). However, being penalised under the article twice within a year can lead to a criminal case, a maximum of 2-6 years in prison and, importantly, can deny the right to stand for elections.

Quoted by RBC, political analyst Alexander Pozhalov predicts that the government will begin to apply the article more widely prior to the elections this year. However, he notes the possibility of repression working as ‘free promotion’ for the opposition.

The United Democrats are not considered an ‘undesirable’ organisation. Instead, the event’s organiser Andrei Pivovarov believes the police connected the event to London-based Open Russia, the anti-Putin, pro-democracy organisation which has been ‘undesirable’ since 2017. He says they had no direct role in the event, rather it was Pivovarov, and his Russian organisation of the same name, which played a part in the event’s organisation. The Russian Open Russia organisation is no-longer legally connected to its namesake in London.

The founder of London’s Open Russia is the exiled Kremlin critic and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. His foundation called for the immediate release of all detained.

In a video on social media Pivovarov talks from a police van alongside around 15 other attendees. In his opinion, the aim was to send a message to the opposition who should be scared. Yet, he talks of an optimistic atmosphere, those around him are involved in legal discussion while he reads a newspaper.

Sending a Message

Forum coordinator Tatyana Usmanova, of the Russian Open Russia group, calls the disruption by security forces unprecedented. Since it is not an arrestable offence, it would have been enough to take the details of attendees without detaining people.

The connection to the upcoming elections has not been missed. Mikhail Kovyazin went to the forum with a relatively small, local issue, only to end up in a police van with opposition leader Ilya Yashin. He told RFE/RL that he believes ‘the reason for such harsh and excessive actions by the authorities is fear’. He adds that the authorities ‘are trying to suppress any manifestation of independence’.

Activist Kirill Prokorov believes the decision to interrupt, rather than prevent the conference from starting, was planned to detain the most people and attract media coverage. They wanted opposition figures ‘to think about their future in this country’.

The police raid targeted a wide range of independent politicians and activists, both regional, and high-profile. Yet, Prokorov shares a similar joviality to Pivovarov. ‘I did some excellent networking in the police van’, he says.

Sources: RFE/RL, Vedomosti, RBC

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