Moscow Refuses to Sanction ‘Strategy 31’ Rally, Again

Strategy 31 emblem. Source: Strategy-31.ruFor the ninth time in a row, the Moscow city authorities have turned down an application by Russian oppositionists to hold a rally in defense of the freedom of peaceful assembly. The announcement came from former Soviet dissident and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Interfax reported on Wednesday.

The demonstration would be the ninth iteration of the Strategy 31 rallies, named for the 31st article of the Russian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly. The rallies have been held, despite lacking official sanction, for the past year on the 31st of each month with that date in Moscow and other cities across Russia.

“I received a call from the mayor’s office and was told that there is going to be some kind of big cultural event on Triumfalnaya Square on that day.” said Alexeyeva. “We’re being turned down for the ninth time,” All previous rallies have been turned down for similar reasons, but Strategy 31 organizers insist that the city is working to intentionally deny them access to Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, since its central location gives the rallies relatively high visibility.

Alexeyeva was adamant that rally organizers maintain their constitutional right to hold the rally on the square and would not move it to a different location, as the city has repeatedly proposed. Since these alternative sites would render the rallies virtually invisible to the general population and confuse people who wanted to take part as to where they were going to be held, Strategy 31 organizers have continued to insist that the event be held on Triumfalnaya Square.

“We’ll come to Triumfalnaya Square on May 31 all the same,” said Alexeyeva. “But it won’t be a rally. We’ll come with signs with the number ’31’ in defense of the 31st article of the constitution,” most likely meaning that the oppositionists don’t intend to carry political insignia to the square. In that case, the event would not constitute an actual rally that would require government sanction to be held legally.

Alexeyeva added, however, that she still expects the police and OMON riot forces to beat and detain event participants as they have during all previously Strategy 31 rallies. The 82-year-old Alexeyeva herself was detained during last December’s New Years Eve rally, prompting an outcry from rights groups and federal representatives in Europe and the United States. “They’ll probably start seizing us again,” she said on Wednesday. “I want to discuss the developing situation with the leadership of the Moscow City Police.”

Strategy 31 co-organizer and opposition leader Eduard Limonov added that Moscow city authorities are currently trying to organize a meeting with rally organizers. He said that he does not believe, however, that the city is prepared to make any concessions and is simply trying to save face. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has expressed disdain for the Strategy 31 movement and has given conflicting statements on why his government continually rejects their applications to hold rallies on Triumfalnaya Square.

Saving face may very well be on the minds of the city administration this time around. International pressure has been mounting against both federal and city authorities in Russia and Moscow ever since Alexeyeva’s arrest made global news out of the brutal treatment of opposition protesters by the police. And for the May 31 event, Strategy 31 organizers have invited a delegation from the European Parliament and the editors-in-chief from more than a dozen large Russian media outlets to observe the proceedings.

News also broke on Wednesday that the St. Petersburg authorities have similarly refused to sanction a Strategy 31 protest in that city on May 31, also on the basis that another event had already been planned for the oppositionist’s chosen site. Organizers of the rally, which included the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council, the Petersburg branch of the United Civil Front, the liberal opposition party Yabloko, the opposition movement Solidarity, and a number of youth democratic advocacy groups, also said that they intend to hold the rally anyway.