Petersburg: Rocking the Vote

The St. Petersburg Times
December 14, 2011
More Than 10,000 Gather at Biggest Rally in 10 Years
By Sergey Chernov

Semi-spontaneous protests against widespread fraud favoring pro-Kremlin party United Russia at the Dec. 4 State Duma and St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly elections resulted in the biggest rally St. Petersburg has seen in the past decade, drawing more than 10,000 on Saturday.

Part of the national campaign of protests demanding the annulment of election results because of multiple violations — the largest being a rally in Moscow attended by between 25,000 to 150,000, according to various estimates — the St. Petersburg rally was organized via Vkontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) originally as an unauthorized assembly on Ploshchad Vosstaniya in central St. Petersburg.

The Vkontakte group was called “We didn’t elect crooks and thieves,” the “party of crooks and thieves” being a popular name for United Russia coined by Moscow opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

"Putin is a thief!"

During the rally buildup, Vkontakte’s CEO Pavel Durov was summoned to the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office on Friday after he publicly rejected demands by the Federal Security Service to shut down anti-fraud protest groups on his social network, while St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko condemned the protests as foreign interference.

“I can’t call what’s happening in our city anything other than a provocation, carefully planned abroad,” Poltavchenko said, speaking on the City Hall-financed Sankt-Peterburg cable TV channel Friday.

On the same day, St. Petersburg police chief Mikhail Sukhodolsky warned the public against participating in “unsanctioned protests,” arguing that using massive police force to break up protests results in crime-prone areas being left without police presence.

Before Saturday’s sanctioned rally, daily protests near Gostiny Dvor were held from Dec. 4 through Thursday, Dec. 8, resulting in around 630 to 640 arrests in total, according to Memorial human rights group. Tuesday saw the highest number of arrests at 247.

Those arrested, many of whom were held for one to two days in police precincts, were charged with violating the rules on holding assemblies and with failure to follow police orders. A number were sentenced to three to 15 days in custody.

Filipp Kostenko, sentenced to 15 days, and Viktor Demyanenko, sentenced to 10 days, are holding a hunger strike, Memorial said in an e-mail. Also in custody are Alexander Yashin (13 days), Alexander Martynov (10) as well as Pavel Kushch, Ilya Kostaryov and Dmitry Sharov, whose sentences are unknown. They are expected to be released between Dec. 15 and 21.

Human rights groups and the opposition said the arrests were illegal, as they violated the constitution and international agreements that Russia had signed.

The Russian law on public assemblies adopted in 2004 requires that organizers submit an application 15 days before a rally is held. Therefore the earliest protest the organizers had time to apply for would have been held on Dec. 18.

Preparation for Saturday’s rally was somewhat chaotic, as some groups urged people to meet at other sites, while the eventual site of the standup rally was not named until Friday evening after last-minute negotiations with City Hall were held.

United Civil Front (OGF) local leader Olga Kurnosova, who initiated the talks, said Tuesday that authorization was received in an “unprecedented manner.”

“Poltavchenko gave orders to police chief Sukhodolsky to provide all kinds of assistance to those rallying on Pionerskaya Ploshchad,” she said by phone Tuesday.

Hundreds, however, gathered at Ploshchad Vosstaniya and marched to Pionerskaya Ploshchad without the police attempting to stop or disperse them, except for a small clash on Nevsky Prospekt that resulted in about 10 arrests.

The rally drew a broad range of political groups, from anarchists to nationalists, but it was ordinary citizens enraged by electoral fraud who dominated the event. Many couldn’t get onto the square because of a lack of space and police cordons, and stood in nearby areas and streets, trying to listen to the speeches.

In addition to the annulment of the election results, the rally’s demands included change to restrictive election legislation, the registration of all political parties and punishment of Central Election Commission chairman Vladimir Churov. The authorities were given a week until the next rally — to be held at the same place on Dec. 18 — to react to the demands.

Yabloko, which won six seats out of the 50 in the Legislative Assembly, added to the chaos surrounding the organization of the rally by sending out a statement Friday evening urging people not to come to what it called an “unauthorized protest” on Ploshchad Vosstaniya, but to come to a “peaceful assembly” near Kazan Cathedral instead.

“Provocateurs from the ‘opposition’ and the current authoritarian regime are jointly driving the situation to bloodshed,” Yabloko’s local chair Maxim Reznik wrote. After finding out that City Hall had approved a rally on Pionerskaya Ploshchad, Reznik later encouraged people to go there.

Speaking to several dozen at a small rally near Kazan Cathedral, Reznik said that the cancelation of the election results that the “radical opposition” is demanding coincides with the interests of city authorities. Explaining his position by phone Tuesday, he said that the official results of the elections should be corrected and changed to the real results of the voting, rather than cancelled altogether.

Reznik said that the opposition had taken “half the seats” in the Legislative Assembly, including Yabloko’s eight seats, A Just Russia’s 12 seats and the Communist Party’s seven seats, as opposed to United Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s 20 and 5 seats, respectively.

Yabloko was not allowed to take part in local elections in 2007, when a number of signatures they collected were declared “invalid,” and had been absent from the Legislative Assembly until now.

Later Reznik came to Pionerskaya Ploshchad, where the main rally was held, but was not allowed to speak by the organizers, he said. Kurnosova said Tuesday that she, as the organizer, had not been approached by Reznik.

Yabloko’s Yuly Rybakov, who did speak at the rally, directed his criticism toward “communist extremists and National Bolsheviks,” rather than to the authorities.

He said the radicals would try to engage the non-political young people who attended the rally in their networks.

According to the Other Russia party’s local chair Andrei Dmitriyev, the authorities are unlikely to meet the rally’s demands.

“People shouldn’t just let off steam, which is obviously the tactic chosen by the authorities,” Dmitriyev said.

“It’s smart enough for them. They did not use violence during the rally, and issued a permit to Kurnosova quickly enough. They’re waiting for the wave to calm down and everything to return to normal.”

Despite the ultimatum to either hold new elections or face a new wave of protests, Poltavchenko failed to react and the City Election Committee confirmed the election results Monday, he said.

“That’s why we should increase protest activity and radicalize these protest activities,” Dmitriyev said. “If rallies on Pionerskaya Ploshchad can’t force Poltavchenko to react, they should move closer to City Hall.”

In connection with Saturday’s protests, 45 were detained in central St. Petersburg, the police told Interfax. Twenty-seven were detained on Senatskaya Ploshchad for a flash mob called “The Funeral of Democracy,” during which participants stood with their mouths taped shut, holding candles.

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Filed under activism, protests, Russian society

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