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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Protest becomes a staged action in Russia”

International observer from Ukraine Olena Ihnatieva shares her vision of events in Bolotnaya Square
20 May, 2013 - 18:15

The conversation with the international observer from Ukraine, head of the Donetsk Human Rights Center Olena IHNATIEVA, who has recently served as an international observer during the meetings in Bolotnaya Square, did not intend to reveal the political and social portrait of protesting Moscow – the rallies “routine” was the main topic. But it was not the only thing discussed.

How did you end up at the rally?

“We, Ukrainians and Belarusians, were invited to Bolotnaya Square by Russians from the United Public Oversight Group (Ogon Watch) as international observers. A similar initiative in Ukraine is called the Group of Public Oversight (OZON), and in Belarus there is the Association of Public Observation (AGRANA). They are united by a common goal – watch over order during the peaceful meetings. Of course, there are other tasks. In Ukraine and Belarus, OZON and AGRANA deal with peaceful assembly only. For example, in Ukraine, people who come to rallies as observers, wear yellow jackets with ‘Public Observer’ written on them. In Russia, they use badges with observers’ photos and information on the organization they represent. Ukrainians can just come to a rally without warning anyone in advance. In Russia and Belarus this must be coordinated with the MIA. Before a rally, a list of people and their identification information is sent there to notify that they will be present as observers during that rally. During a meeting, we split into groups of four people, and there are two mobile posts. I was impressed the most that the place where event is held is completely fenced with two rows of metal rails. There is a certain number of entrances, there were three of them in Bolotnaya Square. When entering, you must provide your bag for inspection. If necessary, your pockets are checked too. Basically, this reminds of an ordinary inspection. Of course, no protocols are filled out. Russians have insisted for a long time for women to be inspected by women police officers. This whole procedure shocks me. As of today, Russia and Belarus are the only two countries where peaceful meetings are limited to a certain territory.”

Who participates in meetings in Bolotnaya Square?

“We are used to the fact that in Ukraine active people are 35 years old at the most. In Russia, absolutely everyone joined the events in Bolotnaya Square: from young families with air balloons and happy mood to elderly people. Of course, there were young people with iPhones, who took pictures of themselves near the metal detectors and immediately posted them on Instagram. ‘It is trendy to go to rallies’ – such opinion exists nowadays. It seemed to me that some young people came there not because of their revolutionary mindset, but because it was ‘trendy’ and ‘socially right.’ If we talk about ideological preferences, there were left-wing supporters, LGBT representatives, right-wing nationalists, and rather aggressively disposed Orthodox believers. People came there to display their solidarity with the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. I would say that this time it was not a ‘meeting as a holiday,’ but ‘meeting as a party.’ It was curious to listen to some people talk on the phone. ‘I am standing at that very spot where they beat Kolia last time.’ ‘I am waiting for you where the cops pinched me last time.’ And at the same time, all of them came back and celebrated life.”

Are people afraid, in terms of understanding what this might cost them?

“It was stated that 25,000 police officers were to look after the meeting (this data is provided by the police). There were armored vehicles, military trucks, a lot of police vans. All the approaches to Bolotnaya Square were blocked by military forces and the police. The entrance was completely blocked by the law-enforcement officers. So, this was an enclosed space, which was impossible to escape. This reminds very much of the risk of safety rules inobservance. For example, if you are in a multistoried building with only one exit, you realize what is going to happen if a fire starts, for instance. I had a similar impression when I saw the square layout and all the machinery that was there the day before the rally. But people who came were absolutely calm, put their bags near police officers, and walked through metal detectors. This situation raises neither questions, nor difficulties for them. They willingly opened their bags and showed the contents of their pockets. It seemed as if people got used to it. It cannot be said that they approve of it, but they do not perceive it as something extraordinary. Even though for me, as for citizen of Ukraine, this situation seemed impossible, unreal, and not right.

“It looked like the movement of public oversight over the police is not yet developed in Russia. In Ukraine, we have been promoting these ideas for about three or four years. Ukrainian police starts slowly getting used to the fact that they can be asked about their badge, a book of complaints and suggestions, etc. These are the so-called ‘routine’ questions. In Russia, when we tried to ask the police workers who checked meeting attendants why they took water and medicine away, they could not give an answer to that. The reaction was rather weird, it disturbed them. But after these questions they gave orders to stop doing that.”

What impressed you the most?

“In Russia, the government strives to deprive the protesting action of its very essence by the slightest amendments to the legislation. Basically, now a rally is an enclosed box guarded by the police. If you want to protest, come to a specific designed place at an indicated hour, and there cannot be more participants than it was stated beforehand. I am stunned at how easily people agree to all this. A protest stops being a protest and becomes a staged action instead.”

By Kateryna YAKOVLENKO, The Day, Donetsk