ZOiS Spotlight 4/2018

Political spaces of Russian opposition

by Tatiana Golova 07/02/2018
A protestor during the call for a ‘voters' strike’ at the end of January 2018 with a sign: „I will go to the election, when there will be a choice.” DW/E. Samedova

The “Voters’ Strike” Russian protests of late January 2018, in which demonstrators called for a boycott of the country’s upcoming presidential election, were the latest political street actions initiated by opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny and his team. The public assemblies were part of a campaign launched after Navalny had been formally barred from competing in the election. That campaign aims at demobilising critical voters, lowering the voter turnout, reaching a ridiculously high proportion of votes for Putin, and, as a result, delegitimising the almost certain re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The latest events do not match the scale of the anticorruption protests in March 2017, which many saw as a sign of political reinvigoration after the decline of the protest wave of 2011–2012. In Moscow alone, there were about 10,000 participants less than last year. The attendance figures for other cities, however, show that the decrease was not uniform across the country. This regional diffusion is what makes the protests inspired by Navalny special. The national mobilisation campaign was based on a network of local campaign headquarters set up approximately a year ago.

In today’s Russia, establishing a supraregional organisational structure of nonsystemic opposition is an outstanding achievement by Navalny and his supporters, according to political analyst Kirill Rogov. This structure is set up for the long term and allows participants to coordinate activities that go beyond protesting, such as training election observers. It enables activists to bring people to the streets in different parts of Russia simultaneously. By participating in such locally embedded actions, people can develop solidarity that transcends local topics and protest locations, and build a political identity. And despite a strong personal focus on Navalny, the campaign has the makings of political space from below.

Spatial containment of protests

The construction of local protest spaces, however, is subject to considerable restrictions. The protest organisers tend to prefer visible, well-known, and publicly accessible urban areas. Mostly, these are the central squares of activists’ respective cities. The symbolic appropriation of central areas and prominent sites increases the visibility of the protests, both on the streets and in the media. Street actions can even establish political significance of a particular site as it happened with Prospect Sakharova in Moscow during the movement for fair elections in the years 2011 and 2012. Rallying on such sites allows protesters to use their resources economically and lend the action an additional significance by connecting it to the bigger protest tradition. In the third-largest Russian city of Novosibirsk, Lenin square at the Opera, Pervomaiskii park, and the square before the library GPNTB were popular sites of street protests.

The use of such prominent sites was systematically restricted by the Russian state in reaction to the mobilisation wave of 2011–2012. The legislation on public assemblies was tightened by increasing fines, introducing compulsory labour as a penalty for relevant offences, and banning face coverings. Spatial regulations formed an essential mechanism for strengthening the state system of control. According to the assembly law, the assemblies should now take place on designated sites. Lists of such sites and rules for their use are defined by the executive and legislature of each region. In such so-called Hyde Parks, public assemblies with a set maximum number of participants can take place without a formal application. The Hyde Park regulation might have meant a recognition of public assemblies but it led to their spatial separation, especially because most of the designated sites lie on cities’ peripheries. The protest events can be located on other sites, but then they are subject to the formal approval of local authorities—and obtaining the approval is difficult, especially for opposition actors.

The positive definition of designated protest sites is complemented by the negative definition of areas where assemblies are not allowed. While federal legislation is rather reserved on this point, regional laws introduce different levels of restrictions as demonstrated by the project „Territoriia Nelsia“ (Territory of Not Allowed) by OVD-Info.

Regional restrictions on the freedom of assembly: Novosibirsk

Let us consider the case of Novosibirsk. In addition to the federal list of places where gatherings are not allowed (such as dangerous production sites, railways, pipelines, prisons, courts, border areas, and presidential residences), the Novosibirsk regional assembly introduced further categories of prohibited sites: objects of infrastructure and communication, federal and regional executives, pension fund offices, other state funds, local administrations, and objects of social infrastructure, including facilities for culture, children, education, and sport (such as schools and kindergardens). Taking into account the so-called adjacent areas mentioned but not defined by the law, it becomes difficult to find public areas beyond those that are restricted. According to the estimate  by “Territoriia Nelsia”, public assemblies are prohibited in about 57 per cent of the city of Novosibirsk (in Moscow in about 2 per cent).

Nine out of ten designated assembly sites on the list, which was introduced 2013, are situated far from the city centre and from areas frequented by the general public. Some of these permitted areas lie near places where public actions are not allowed. This may seem paradoxical but in fact reflects the logic of the state domination of urban areas as potential political spaces – the domination which is realised in  multiple ways. After the organisers of a planned demonstration or rally have notified the authorities of their intended event, they might be confronted with an alternative and far less attractive route or site, often the designated protest site at the remote Ob river promenade. Or it might turn out that the proposed site is already reserved for another event, as was the case with the anticorruption protests in March 2017: the intended Hyde Park was not to be used due to the “pavement defects”, and an alternative site suggested by the organisers was blocked by a free-hugs-action by the youth organisation of the “United Russia”-party. The court, in accordance to the decision by the Constitutional Court from 2013, finally lifted the first ban, because the city authorities had failed to offer an alternative site.

At the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, a series of rallies against tariff increases occurred in Novosibirsk, organised by activists of different political orientations. Almost all these rallies took place in the city’s central Lenin Square. In the context of a Russia-wide increase in pressure against Navalny’s supporters and other nonsystemic opposition actors, it has become increasingly difficult and risky for activists to hold street protests in Novosibirsk.

The dominance of public spaces by local authorities restricts the practical options of protest groups and increases the individual costs of participation. Moreover, it restricts the opportunities for the formation of supralocal identities and political spaces. At the same time, state control of urban spaces tends to make these areas more relevant for political action: contention over assembly sites can help attract public attention. And if a street protest can take place despite the obstacles, it can be seen as a success in its own right.

Tatiana Golova is Research Associate at ZOiS.