Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pandemic Pretext? Russian Police Break Up Congress Of Independent Lawmakers

Former municipal deputy Yulia Galyamina is led out of the hotel in Novgorod on May 22.
Former municipal deputy Yulia Galyamina is led out of the hotel in Novgorod on May 22.

NOVGOROD, Russia -- A wedding reception was scheduled for the Hotel Rossia in central Novgorod on the evening of May 22, but guests arrived to find police blocking the door.

The young couple's first step into the future had become collateral damage in the Russian government's increasingly ruthless war on dissent ahead of elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, later this year.

In two neighboring banquet rooms at the hotel, a gathering of independent local lawmakers from 30 Russian regions was just getting under way, with the aim of coordinating tactics for the ballot. Organizers were still welcoming participants when officers entered the venue and declared the event in violation of local pandemic restrictions that, among other things, restricted gatherings to 30 people.

"We were wearing masks," said Sergei Vlasov, a participant at the conference in Novgorod, a city between Moscow and St. Petersburg. "There were 25 people in the room. We sat on separated chairs. We were observing all protocols. In the police report, they wrote that there were 31 people there, although cameras were rolling when they did the head count: there were 25 of us."

Sergei Vlasov (file photo)
Sergei Vlasov (file photo)

"The police were carrying out a political order," he said.

Conference organizer and former Moscow district-council member Yulia Galyamina, who was sentenced on May 24 to seven days of jail time over the event, said in court that the number of people in the hall exceeded 30 only after the police forced their way in. Fellow event organizer Aleksandr Bondarchuk, a local lawmaker from the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District in Russia's Far North, was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and a 5,000-ruble ($68) fine, while St. Petersburg district lawmaker Vitaly Bovar was fined 3,000 rubles ($41) for disobeying a police officer.

For Galyamina, who has emerged as a leading figure in the democratic opposition after gaining a district-council seat in Moscow in 2017 and being barred from running for the Moscow City Duma in 2019, the administrative conviction in Novgorod could be particularly consequential. In December 2020, she was given a two-year suspended prison term for participating in protests the previous year, and the new court ruling could potentially result in her being sent to serve that sentence behind bars.

The raid on the Novgorod Zemsky Congress -- named after a 1904 gathering of representatives of all classes of Russian society that petitioned the tsar for basic political and civil liberties -- echoed a similar crackdown on a gathering of independent local officials in Moscow on March 13. In that incident, police detained nearly 200 people from 56 regions who had gathered to strategize about the State Duma elections, which are due to be held by September 19. Galyamina was among those detained during that crackdown as well.

A poll by the independent Levada Center released in March found that just 27 percent of Russians plan to vote for the ruling United Russia party in the upcoming elections. Another Levada poll earlier this month found the party's popularity even lower in Moscow, where 15 percent would vote for it.

As the elections approach, Russia's authorities have undertaken a sweeping crackdown on organized political opposition. In addition to the two raids on conferences of independent lawmakers, they have forced the shutdown of the regional offices of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and a court in February ordered Navalny to serve 2 1/2 years in prison on charges supporters say were politically motivated.

On May 26, the Duma passed legislation aimed at making it more difficult for opposition figures to participate in the Duma elections, and the government has cracked down hard on social-media commentary and independent journalism through its controversial anti-extremism and "foreign agent" laws.

More quietly, United Russia officials in many regions have, using what those targeted call flimsy pretexts, been pushing to strip independent lawmakers of their mandates. On May 18, St. Petersburg district-council member Yuly Lebedev lost his council seat over purported discrepancies in his asset declaration that he denies.

"I think that 2019 was a disaster for United Russia," Lebedev told RFE/RL. "Young, independent people aged 35 to 45 with some knowledge started running in elections. Young people were elected who began to disrupt the life of the executive branch, which was not willing to change anything or to accept any accountability."

In comments to the daily Nezavisimaya gazeta following the events in Novgorod, Moscow-based political analyst Konstantin Kalachev said that "the message to society is simple: no gatherings of more than two people, don't get involved in opposition or political activity, and any unsanctioned activity is going to be stopped."

"True, this strikes a blow against the propaganda that the elections will be competitive and legitimate," he added, "but for the authorities the main thing is to preserve the foundations of the existing political system."

Novgorod region Governor Andrei Nikitin issued the new pandemic restriction limiting private gatherings to fewer than 30 people on May 18, despite the fact that the city of some 250,000 people was registering only about 10 new COVID-19 infections per day and had seen no significant spike in recent weeks. Zemsky Congress organizers knew the order targeted their event and issued a statement saying it "was clearly political in nature."

When Galyamina arrived from Moscow during the day on May 21, police met her train and tried to give her a written warning not to violate the governor's new restriction -- a warning that she refused to accept.

For their part, the congress sent police a letter urging them not to exceed their authority by carrying out politically motivated instructions.

The organizers, however, took the order into account, hastily organizing a second conference room in order to split up the attendees and ordering journalists to remain outside the venue.

In her statement in court on May 24, Galyamina added one criticism to her complaint that the police had fabricated the alleged violations of the governor's pandemic restrictions.

"Why did they have to break up the wedding celebration?" she asked the judge.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Novgorod by Aleksei Sabelsky of Current Time. Katerina Klepikovskaya and Matvei Nikolayev of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service also contributed to this report from Novgorod