Freedom to Assemble in Russia: Does the Future Hold Hope for Improvement?

Russian protester detained by riot police. Photo by Steve Bowbrick (May 2007).

Recently, Russian policy has become increasingly strict on individuals’ rights to assemble and to protest, narrowing the interpretation of these fundamental rights. Article 31 of the Russian Constitution and Article 11, of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) protect individuals’ rights to peacefully assemble. Nonetheless, the Russian government has restricted many non-violent protests causing an upheaval among demonstrators and activists and resulting in international court cases, the establishment of activist groups to promote freedom of expression, and a reevaluation of Russia’s national laws.

Article 31 of the Russian Constitution establishes the right to assemble, stating: “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.” Additionally, Russia is a State Party to the Convention, which protects the right to peaceful assembly, the right to an effective remedy, and that these rights shall be secured without discrimination, under Articles 11, 13, and 14, respectively. The Convention also provides individuals with the ability to remedy violations of these rights before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Perhaps the most blatant restriction of the right to assemble is exemplified in Russia’s prohibition of the Moscow lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) pride parades in 2006, 2007 and 2008. According to Russian authorities, the bans were grounded in concern for public safety resulting from a fear that demonstrations would cause violent reactions among the Russian people with fervent prejudice against homosexuals. The government’s ban and discriminatory comments made by the former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, towards homosexuals caused such frustration that parade organizers brought claims of discrimination before the ECtHR.

Nikolay Alekseyev, founder and chief organizer of the LGBT rights group Moscow Pride, and a prominent LGBT rights activist, has filed three complaints with the ECtHR in response to Russia’s ban on the LGBT demonstrations and the lack of an available remedy under Russian law to challenge these bans. The complaints allege that Russia violated Articles 11, 13, and 14 of the Convention. On October 21, the ECtHR, in Alekseyev v. Russia, ruled in favor of Alekseyev, marking the first victory for LGBT rights activists before the EtCHR in a case against Russia. The ECtHR noted that the Moscow authorities had failed to provide adequate explanation for the ban on the demonstrations and found the authorities in violation of Articles 11, 13 and 14 of the Convention. This ruling reinforces the LGBT community’s right to protest and organize and extends protection of the right to peaceful assembly to other groups.

The ECtHR reasoned that the Russian authorities’ concern over possible disturbances caused by the demonstrations was not sufficient to justify the ban. The court further found that the petitioners were denied an effective domestic remedy to address the breach of freedom of assembly, because the LGBT community’s claims were not given a fair hearing in Russia, despite the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to hold demonstrations. The ECtHR stated that conditioning a minority group’s rights to freedom of assembly on the majority of the population’s acceptance of these rights is inconsistent with the values of Article 14 of the Convention. As a result, the ECtHR fined Russia €29,510 in damages and legal fees to be paid to Alekseyev.

In a movement to combat the oppressive policies of the Russian government, a group known as Strategy 31, whose name refers to Section 31 of the Russian Constitution, is working to bring attention to the restrictions on freedom of expression and right to assemble by organizing monthly protests and distributing pamphlets. The members of the Section 31 movement hold protests in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on each month composed of 31 days to draw attention to Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. Beginning in 2009, Strategy 31 has been working to restore the right of the Russian people to assemble, and until September 2010, all nine protests they have sponsored have been banned by the government for various reasons. Despite the government’s opposition, the demonstrations have gained support from many of Russia’s wide range of human rights groups affected by the government’s restrictive policies. In October, Moscow also prohibited protests for political reform and demonstrations against the destruction of 1,000 hectares of the Khimki forest.

More recently, the Russian government has taken affirmative steps toward improving individuals’ right to assemble, perhaps as a result of publicity from the Aleksevev case or from the constant pressure by Strategy 31. In a move that surprised many human rights groups, Russian President Dmitry Medvdev overturned the federal “Law on Rallies, Meetings, Demonstrations, Marches, and Pickets” sponsored by the United Russian Party. The law would have made organizing future demonstrations a crime for individuals previously convicted of planning illegal rallies.

After passing through the Federal Assembly of Russia in October 2010, President Medvdev vetoed the law in a letter addressed to the two houses of the Federal Assembly that stressed the protection of demonstrators’ rights. Additionally, the Russian government permitted Strategy 31’s October 2010 monthly protest. Finally, authorities have allowed several rallies commemorating journalists who were murdered for investigating and exposing human rights violations and violators, including Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya and Oleg Kashin. Russian activists for diverse causes hope that the ECtHR’s ruling in Alekseyev’s case is a step forward for greater recognition of the freedom to assemble and protest, and the work of groups like Strategy 31.

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