Right to Free Assembly ‘Not Evident to Russian Gov’t’

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Source: Expert.ruThe Russian government’s treatment of the political opposition came under harsh criticism on Wednesday from members of a monitoring commission from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, speaking at a press conference in conclusion to their visit to the country.

Commission member Andreas Gross told the press that the Russian government had failed to observe the right to free assembly. “It is not apparently to the Russian government that the right to free assembly is a basic human right and should not be a topic for debate,” said Gross.

Russian opposition groups have long complained of brutal repression in response to their rallies, which are usually denied sanction by regional authorities. Of particular note are the Strategy 31 rallies organized by the Other Russia coalition, dedicated to the 31st article of the Russian constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly. Moscow city authorities have categorically refused to sanction the rallies, although organizers have chosen to hold them regardless. Each of the half-dozen rallies has ended with scores of detentions and brutal repression by the police.

While the Moscow mayor’s office has insisted that the Strategy 31 rallies would be sanctioned if the organizers agreed to move them to another location, Gross said that he found such pretexts untenable. Moreover, he said that he made it clear to government authorities that beating members of unsanctioned protests was not acceptable.

Commission member György Frunda brought attention to problems in Russia’s electoral system. The current 7 percent threshold that a political party must reach during elections to hold seats in the State Duma is too high, he said. “The electoral system on the whole is in need of change,” as was the state prosecutor’s office, Frunda added. Gross said in conclusion that the commission hoped to see an increase in the number of parliamentary parties in the State Duma after the next set of elections.

Currently, the only political parties in the State Duma are the Kremlin-backed United Russia party(holding 70 percent of the seats), the Communist Party (12.7 percent), and the loyal oppositionist parties A Just Russia (8.9 percent) and the Liberal Democratic Party (8.4 percent). The 7 percent threshold makes it very difficult for opposition parties to gain seats, especially given that elections in Russia are already generally accompanied by widespread voter fraud in favor of United Russia.

The monitoring commission plans to return to Russia in July, and will release a full report of its findings in the beginning of 2011.