Russia’s “Bolotnaya Case” – An “Ordinary” Political Trial

This Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of what Russians call “The Bolotnaya Case”. On May 6 2012, protesters at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square demonstrating against Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration at an event called “The March of Millions” were involved in clashes with riot police. Despite the fact that the route of the march had been agreed with the city authorities back the February, participants were blocked by chains of riot police at one of the entrances, leading to heightened tensions. Who attacked whom first is a bone of contention: the police claim the protesters attacked them with stones, while members of the opposition maintain they were the victim of provocation. Prominent leftest leader Sergei Udaltsov was dragged off stage by riot police during a speech after urging those present to stage a sitting protest. By the end of the protest, over 400 people had been arrested and 16 police and 20 demonstrators had been injured. Following the disturbances, Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov claimed the police had dealt with protesters “too leniently”. In the wake of the Bolotnaya protests, the maximum fines for unsanctioned demonstrations were increased from approximately 30 USD to approximately 50,000 USD.

After the altercations, Russia’s feared Investigative Committee began criminal proceedings under Article 212 (engaging in mass disorder) and Article 318 (violence against law enforcement) of Russia’s Criminal Code. Charges under these articles carry sentences of between four and ten years in prison. Twenty eight people are currently being investigated, 17 of whom are currently in being held in prison and three of whom are under house arrest. One of the accused, Leonid Razvozzhaev was allegedly kidnapped from Ukraine by Russian forces and tortured into giving a confession. The most recent arrest occurred on April 28 2013, when prominent anti-fascist activist and member of the opposition’s “coordinating council”, Aleksei Gaskarov, was accused of attacking a riot police officer at Bolotnaya. Gaskarov maintains he was only preventing the officer from attacking someone else and that he had in fact sustained serious injuries from the police that day.

The Russian opposition maintains that these investigations are politically motivated, based on flimsy evidence and designed to scare people away from mass demonstrations and other forms of opposition activism. They have set up a committee to help with the defence of the accused as well as increasing awareness of the proceedings. The committee’s “One Day – One Name” campaign which has been running throughout April seeks to highlight the case of a different individual accused every day with a series of blogsyoutube videos and individual protests. Prominent opposition figures like Aleksey Navalny (who is himself on trial in Kirov), television presenter Leonid Parfenov, and journalist Oleg Kashin have participated in the campaign by recording videos in which they discuss the case of one fo the accused.

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

Aleksei Gaskarov in a cage at his hearing. Image via Youtube

The “One Day – One Name” campaign comes to an end on Monday, May 6 2013, as opposition figures plan to stage another protest on Bolotnaya square to mark the anniversary of the first demonstration and to protest the “Bolotnaya Case”. The mayor has agreed to the protest, but has forbidden a march, claiming it would be too disruptive for a working day. A smaller march, scheduled for Saturday, May 5 was allowed instead.

Though the Bolotnaya case is in many ways another example of the politicisation of the justice system in Russia, it has failed to capture the western imagination in the same way the trials of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot or Navalny have. The case lacks a charismatic central figure and doesn’t fit neatly into a simple good/evil narrative. While Pussy Riot was portrayed as a battle between a group of pretty rock-and-rollers and a reactionary government, the type of violent political demonstrations that characterised Bolotnaya arenot viewed favourably in the West either. But in many ways the Bolotnaya Case may be one of the most important politically motivated trials of the last ten years. The Khodorkovsky case was about teaching the oligarchs their place, Pussy Riot was all about shoring up domestic support among Putin’s conservative base, and Navalny’s trial is likely about simply disqualifying him from running for elected office. The Bolotnaya Case on the other hand is about targeting ordinary rank-and-file opposition figures themselves, rather than their leaders, and making examples. It represents to some extent the “normalisation” of political trials in Russia. This dovetails nicely with the Kremlin’s new law that forces NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” increased penalties for libel, age restrictions on websites and magazines and “homosexual propaganda” all of which are designed to put the liberal (and not so liberal) opposition on the back foot.

A year on since Bolotnaya and Putin’s return to the presidency some are loosing patience. On April 29 Oleg Kashin published an article called “Teach Yourself to Hate” in which he lambasts the opposition for their pusillanimity in the face of the Kremlin’s actions and calls on them to learn to hate their enemy. Whether the opposition needs to teach itself to hate or whether this would simply play into the Kremlin’s hands remains to be seen.

This post first appeared on the International Political Forum at http://internationalpoliticalforum.com/russias-bolotnaya-case-an-ordinary-political-trial/

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