Open Russia Director Jailed During Police Violence on May Day

May 3, 2019
Riot police detain a woman at St Petersburg May Day Parade

On 1 May 2019, thousands of people across Russia took part in rallies as part of the so-called May Day Parades. One of the biggest opposition rallies took place in Russia’s second largest city, Saint Petersburg. But the march soon turned sour after riot police were called in to disperse the peaceful crowds. Dozens were arrested and two activists were handed prison sentences.

But why would authorities call in riot police to put down a peaceful march that they themselves had sanctioned? To answer this question, you simply need to look at the slogan of the rally organised by the ‘United democrats’, a civic project that supports independent politicians in elections.

“Petersburg against United Russia” read the inconspicuous banner held by those marching down St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospect. United Russia is President Putin’s party, and it has become synonymous with the failures of Putin regime. For the Kremlin, such a powerful (and unified) message against what is its electoral backbone would naturally require a violent response.

United Democrats marching with a banner reading “Petersburg against United Russia”

The two activists who felt the full force of this response were Andrei Pivovarov and Aleksandr Shurshev. Andrei, the director of Open Russia, and Aleksandr, head of Alexei Navalny’s opposition campaign in St Petersburg, were two of the 68 participants detained during the rally. Most of the 68 were eventually released without charge; Andrei and Aleksandr, however, were charged and sentenced to 10 days in prison that evening. Despite his measured manner, Aleksandr was a victim of a brutal police takedown. Sadly, this did little to help his case in court. The Kremlin had an agenda.

Andrei Pivovarov (right) and Aleksandr Shurshev (middle) talking to senior police officer at the May Day Parade

Aleksandr and Andrei were prosecuted because their respective roles in civil society and opposition circles. This is why Amnesty International has recognised them as prisoners conscience.

But Andrei’s imprisonment is the second piece of bad news that Open Russia has faced in recent weeks. On 30 April, it received a notification from the Russian ministry of justice that its attempts to register as an official organisation had been unsuccessful. Registering with the ministry of justice is an important step for any Russian non-governmental organisation. But it is especially important for those that work in the fields of civil society and human rights.

Since the 2004 orange revolution in Ukraine the Kremlin has held an extremely sceptical view of non-governmental organisations, opining that many are CIA/US-run fronts aimed at installing pro-western puppet governments. And it is through this conspiratorial lens that the Kremlin viewed some of the biggest demonstrations in Russia’s history, the Bolotnaya demonstrations in 2011/12. In fact, the Kremlin was so shaken by the demonstrations – which brought tens of thousands of people to the walls of the Kremlin – that it introduced new legislation to constrict NGOs and civil society.

First, in July 2012, the Russian State Duma voted for the bill on non-profit organisations. The legislation, commonly dubbed as “foreign agent” laws, allows the Kremlin to deem any non-profit, which receives funding from outside of Russia and is engaged in “political activity”, a foreign agent. Of course, what defines “political activity” is up for debate. Kremlin lawmakers often use broad terminology that requires interpretation. This means prosecutors can apply laws arbitrarily and upon the request of senior Kremlin officials.

Second, in May 2015, President Vladimir Putin signed the decree on “undesirable organisations”. This piece of repressive legislation targets NGOs outside of Russia that support civil society and advocate democracy. The lucky organisations that make it on to the ministry of justice’s list are effectively subjected to a blanket ban in Russia. It becomes illegal to distribute content and insignia produced by “undesirable organisations” (both on- and off-line); and “undesirables” can no longer run events or hold bank accounts in Russia.

It is the second of these two laws that has seen more frequent employment by authorities. This year three civil activists have been charged under article 284.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. Anastasia Shevchenko, Yana Antonova and Maksim Vernikov all stand accused of “executing the actions of an organisation deemed undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation”. In reality, the three had been vocal opponents of the Putin regime and had played an active role in their respective local communities. Anastasia – a single mother of two – has been under house arrest since 23 January. All three face up to six years in prison.

For Open Russia, acquiring official NGO status would protect its members (who, like Anastasia, Yana and Maksim, are engaged civil activists) from politically-motivated prosecution under the Kremlin’s draconian anti-NGO laws.

Whether the Kremlin would want to protect those who believe in a Russia governed by democratic values and rule of law – principles that run utterly contrary to the Kremlin’s kleptocratic style of governance – is a poignant question for all Russian NGOs, including Open Russia. In any case, we can be sure that civil activism will continue in Russia even without the niceties of protection from political persecution.