If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

RUS-2016-Aerial-SPB-Field_of_Mars
The Field of Mars is in the center of Petersburg, but it is conveniently isolated from well-populated residential neighborhoods and high streets. Unless they are extremely well attended, most political rallies held on the famous former parade grounds and revolutioanry mass burial site go unnoticed by the vast majority of Petersburgers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Shiva and Wikipedia

Up the River: The Smolny Will Expand List of Venues for Political Rallies
Mikhail Shevchuk
Delovoi Peterburg
December 4, 2018

As soon as he took up his duties as acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov announced plans to amend the law on political rallies.

“We need to make changes and introduce order, so there were will be no violations on either side,” he said at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in October.

The Smolny has now drafted amendments to the law. The principle of “Hyde Parks,” that is, of specially designated places where Petersburgers can vent their indignation without prior notification of the authorites, remains in force. However, the Smolny has proposed establishing a minimum number of such places, eight in all.

The current law on political rallies does not specify the number of venues. City hall publishes the list of political rally sites in an ordinance. Originally, in 2012, the Field of Mars (or, rather, a small part of it) was designated the city’s “Hyde Park.” Two years later, four more venues were added: Udelny Park, Polyustrovsky Park, Yuzhno-Primorsky Park, and 30th Anniversary of October Gardens. The Field of Mars was struck from the list last year.

uppYuzhno-Primorsky Park is located in the far southwest of Petersburg. It is four kilometers from the nearest subway station, and three kilometers from the nearest suburban railroad station. Map courtesy of Yandex

Theoretically, it is possible to organize demonstrations in other places, but city hall usually refuses to sanction the rallies under various pretexts, suggesting to organizers they use one of the designated “Hyde Parks.” As a matter of principle, however, the opposition avoids the “Hyde Parks,” which are all situated in the city’s outskirts. Instead, they prefer to assemble at such traditional sites for political rallies as Lenin Square, Pioneer Square and, sometimes, even Palace Square, although they risk fines and forcible dispersal by police.

The maximum number of people who can attend a political rally held without prior notification of the authorities would range from 200 to 500 people under the amended law. As under the old law, State Duma MPs, members of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and members of the city’s municipal district councils would be able to hold meetings with constituents on the streets.

Officials would now calculate how many people can attend a political rally at a particular venue according to the norm of one person per square meter. Lenin Square and Pioneer Square would thus be able to accommodate rallies attended by as many as 10,000 people. Organizers would also be obliged to inform officials of canceled rallies under the threat of a fine of 5,000 rubles for individuals and 100,000 rubles for legal entities.

“It’s not the number of sites that matters,” said Andrei Pivovarov, leader of the local office of Open Russia. “And no one has ever been fined for going over the maximum number of attendees. One venue would be enough for us, but as long as it is in downtown Petersburg. If the venues are going to be in the outskirts, city hall could give us a dozen such places, but we would try to protest downtown anyway.”

However, Pivovarov said that if the new list included the Field of Mars, Lenin Square, and Pioneer Square, the opposition would be quite satisfied and make use of these venues.

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Maxim Reznik also named the two squares. He said the number of people attending a rally and the convenience of Petersburgers were more important than a particular place. The opposition was always ready for dialogue, he said. However, if the regime made a point of tightening the screws, dissenters, Reznik said, would choose the paddy wagon, that is, they would choose to attend an unauthorized rally rather than cancel it.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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