A Road Not Taken: Putin Signs Into Law Bill That Restricts Right of Assembly

9 June 2012

By Tatyana Shamsova

On June 5th the State Duma, a legislative body that would pass for the Lower House of the Russian Parliament if the December 2011 parliamentary elections had been free and fair, approved a disgraceful bill on public assemblies that makes a mockery of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, freedom of expression and the rights of Russian citizens.

The opposing factions stood no chance. The ruling party, United Russia, has an overwhelming majority and made “heroic” efforts to force the bill through in the shortest time possible. But the active resistance against the bill in Duma is worth noting. For the first time in Putin’s 12-year rule the Duma had transformed itself from a “no-discussions” body, stamping Kremlin decisions, into a forum where fractions not only raised their voice against the Kremlin, but defended their views with considerable perseverance and creativity.

The next day the Higher Chamber almost unanimously and almost without discussion approved the bill. One senator left the session in protest and the senator from Chukotka voted against the bill (both are mothers of well-known members of the opposition), and one other senator abstained.

At that point, only Putin’s approval was needed for the bill to become law. His signature appeared to be a pure formality. After all he initiated the bill and wanted it to come into force before 12 June, when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow. So his silence against the background of the unprecedented rush in approving the bill by the two chambers of parliament seemed significant.

What made him wait?

On June 7 the Presidential Council on Human Rights after conducting a thorough professional assessment of the bill concluded that it contradicted the Russian Constitution.

Could this have been the reason why Putin seemed to pause?

It is difficult to imagine that Putin did not know about the unconstitutional character of the amendments from the very beginning. Putin and Medvedev as presidents both ignored a number of the Council’s assessments and recommendations concerning the violation of Russian laws, as for example with respect to the Khodorkovsky case.

It could have been, though, that Putin had not expected his advisory body to behave so boldly. However, I suspect that the demonstrative rush by Parliament and the President’s subsequent ‘wise consideration’ were staged. The Law on Public Assemblies in its current form gives many opportunities for the suppression of public gatherings, as the Venice Commission on human rights has recently concluded (see my previous post), and as citizens have experienced.

It seemed to some at that point that Putin might be getting ready to step back from the turmoil he had personally created and decide not to sign the bill. In response, everybody would then sigh with relief and this would have the effect of making the current regulations appear much better in comparison with the proposed ones that Putin had refused to approve.

If he had taken this path, he would have lost practically nothing, and would have even acquired some democratic credentials. Putin’s advisers might have considered it was time to correct his image, damaged in the view of many Russians by his oppressive actions and by his association with the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’ - United Russia, and damaged internationally through the indecent company he keeps in the shape of Lukashenka and Assad, leaders he persists in defending.

So, it could have happened that Putin had refused to sign the bill on Public Assembly into law. And it would have been a smart move on his part.

However, on the evening of June 8, Putin signed the bill. By this act he proved that he is a mediocre leader, inflexible and incapable of creative solutions, one who can use only force against his opponents. His hypocrisy in justifying his actions resembles the style of Colonel Gadaffi and Assad. In one motion of the pen he has successfully joined the Dictators' club.