Putin Makes Heavily Qualified Defense of Right to Protest

Vladimir Putin meets with Russian cultural figures, May 29, 2010. Source: Premier.gov.ruOn the eve of a set of nationwide rallies planned in defense of the freedom of assembly, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called on regional governments not to ban opposition protests if no laws would be violated in the process, Kasparov.ru reports.

The prime minister made the remarks at a meeting on Saturday with representatives of Russia’s cultural elite, including notable actors, poets, and musicians. He said that government officials should not “cover up” with the restrictions that exist in current legislation to deny protesters the right to hold their events. Doing so, Putin said, would create the conditions in which it is impossible to exercise free speech.

“If I see that people are coming out not just to make a scene, but to say something concrete, practical – I have to say thank you,” he told those gathered.

Yury Shevchuk, lead singer of the band DDT and an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, asked the prime minister whether or not the opposition-lead March of Dissent planned to take place in St. Petersburg on Monday would be allowed. In response, Prime Minister Putin appealed to the same principle most commonly used by local governments in banning anti-government events: “The organizers of large demonstrations – dissenters and non-dissenters – must not forget that there are other people as well… If you decide to hold a ‘March of Dissent’ – forgive me for being too harsh – let’s say, near a hospital, where you’re going to be bothering sick children – who in the local authorities would let you hold this march there? And they’re right to ban it!” he said.

Shevchuk also raised the issues of freedom of speech and lawlessness within among federal security operatives and government officials. He asked the prime minister whether or not the country would experience any kind of liberalization, and if its citizens would ever be able to stop fearing the police. In response, Putin reiterated his position that the police are too heavily criticized, saying that one should not “smear everybody with the same black tar,” since “there are all types of people” working in the country’s police forces.

More particularly, the prime minister asserted that “the police are a mirror of all society.”

On Sunday, however, after the Russia media began widely reporting that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was declaring that opposition demonstrations could be legally held on May 31 without fear of backlash by the authorities, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov was quick to clarify that this was definitely not the case.

“Right now many people are reacting ecstatically to the discussion…and are distorting its meaning. We even hear calls to go to protests since Putin allowed it, and that nobody would be touched,” apparently in reference to the fact that most unsanctioned protests in Russia are brutally suppressed by riot police. Peskov went on: “Nothing of the sort, Putin didn’t allow anything, because he cannot allow anything, the local authorities do that. Putin said that everything should be in the framework of the law.”

Peskov said that Putin basically meant that citizens certainly do have the right to protest, but that other citizens who don’t wish to protest have the right, for example, to not be caught in the blocked traffic that could theoretically happen as a result of a protest.

“And to discuss this more conceptually,” Peskov continued, “Putin said that, without question, there cannot be order without democracy, but there cannot be democracy without order, and everything should be strictly within the framework of legality.”

Putin’s spokesperson went on to effectively marginalize Shevchuk’s comments by saying that the discussion was “full” and that the singer’s concerns were “by no means” a primary topic. “A very wide spectrum of issues were discussed, they casually drank tea, with no kind of protocol, and there were questions about rare medicine for patients ill with cancer, and questions about cultural education and questions about culture and everything else,” Peskov said.

He went on to relate the following anecdote: “There was an interesting incident, Shevchuk said a toast in honor of the tea, he took a glass and said that he would very much like for our children to be live in a free society, a freely democratic country, and that, unfortunately, he still did not entirely see this in the country where we live right now. Everyone joined into this toast, and Putin said in conclusion that, in fact, as is the toast, such is the drink. At the time, there was water in everyone’s glasses. Such a curious moment,” Peskov said.

Whatever Putin’s comments, opposition rallies are set to take place today all throughout Russia, unsanctioned though they mostly are, The primary ones are part of the Strategy 31 initiative, in which protests are held in defense of the 31st article of the Russian constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly. As each of the preceding eight rallies have ended with scores of activists detained and beaten by police, organizers have invited the editors from some of Russia’s largest media outlets and deputies from the European Parliament to take part as observers.