Three days ago, Russian MVD commandos raided the offices of Garry Kasparov under the auspices of the “On combating extremism law.” The law, which was passed in July of this year, expanded the definition of “extremism” to include public slander of officials, as well and include acts of vandalism, racism, and other forms of political extremism. The law was originally passed to target the far Right, but hearings held by the Federation Council in October argued that the law should be expanded to include the far Left. A report prepared by the Prosecutor general’s Office for the hearings stated, “members of such informal groups of extremism inclination as skinheads, Russian National Unity and the National Bolshevik Party not only spread the idea of national, racial and religious enmity and hatred, they commit crimes on those grounds against the lives and health of citizens that cause public reaction.” The raid on Kasparov’s offices is a direct result. Kommersant described the raid as follows:
At around 3 PM today, 15 commandos from the Internal Affairs Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit stormed into the Moscow headquarters of Garry Kasparov’s political party, the United Civil Front (OGF), and presented a warrant authorizing them to search the premises. The warrant stated that the unit had received a tip that the office contained literature that activists from the National Bolshevik Party and the “Red Youth Vanguard” plan to distribute at the “March of Dissent” on December 16. The premises were searched for information “about the possible dissemination of literature that contains public incitements to extremist acts.” OGF managing director Denis Bilunov told Kommersant that the police removed some books and newspapers from the office, including the books “Nord-Ost: The Unfinished Investigation,” “Beslan Against the Hostages,” and “The Putin Regime: Ideas and Practice,” as well as OGF newspapers, stickers, and agitprop materials for the “March of Dissent.”
The MVD press secretary claimed that there was “no search,” that the raid was “precautionary” and that “nothing was seized.” This is an obvious lie. The Kommersant report states that the MVD confiscated literature to examine for “extremist” content. While the “extremist law” provided the method, the real purpose was clear: outright political intimidation. The oppositionists, however, weren’t deterred and vowed to hold their march.
In a press conference on Thursday, members of the “Other Russia” coalition, which includes Kasparov, Eduard Limonov, and Ivan Starikov blasted the raid as “an absolute violation of our constitutional rights.” Kasparov added, “Without a doubt, such actions are an attempt by the authorities to apply the law against extremism…to those who do not belong to Putin’s ruling party. Now the authorities and the president understand that the opposition has finally united, and thus they are using their full repressive mechanism of intimidation.” Those familiar with protest politics in the United States will hear an eerie echo in Other Russia’s complaints. American activists often have to deal with the same types of preemptive raids, arrests, and intimidation.
Such statements about the violation of rights, while ideally true, might have no material legal weight. Here the Russian extremist law reveals its janus face: it expands the definition of extremism to uphold one’s “constitutional rights” by cracking down on political activity that falls outside the mainstream, but at the same time violates those constitutional rights by defining the mainstream itself via the exclusion of what has been deemed extremist. The extremist law therefore upholds and the same time it violates “constitutional rights.”
One shouldn’t be surprised that this. And it is apparent that Kasparov isn’t. It’s clear from his above statement that he understands that the extremist law is an attempt to not only exclude certain groups and ideologies from politics, but to define the very borders of acceptable politics itself. All laws that categorize certain groups outside the law (i.e. extremists, fascists, anarchists, terrorists, enemy combatants) inevitably re-inscribe them back into it. That is to say, the very law that ensures, protects, upholds freedom at the same time regulates, violates, and undermines it.
In this sense “Other Russia” is morally right but perhaps legally wrong. The MVD raid was a violation of their rights in that they do have a right to express their political views without state intimidation and coercion. But they are also wrong in that the state itself has the right to define what legally constitutes “extremism” and therefore the constitutive meaning of the very democratic rights Other Russia claims were violated.
The theoretics of law and political rights aside, Other Russia held their march in Moscow despite the mayor’s office banned it. Estimates put it at 2000, but possibly up to 3000 demonstrators. A portion of these numbers were decimated in preemptive arrests by police. Reports say that hundreds were detained as they came off of buses and trains. At the march, protesters chanted slogans like “Freedom” and held banners reading “No to Police State” and “Russia Without Putin.” According to police spokesman, Yevgeny Gildeyev, about 8,500 police were deployed throughout the city. A thousand of them were perched in riot gear with police dogs in hand at the march itself.
The question will now be whether “the March of Dissent” will be more than a symbolic gesture. It is true that it shows an opposition united. But unity is not enough for such a small group of outsiders looking to make inroads with an electorate. The same analysis that one applies to the leftist opposition in America can be applied to their Russian counterparts. A successful movement cannot generate support if their message is simply being against power. It must provide its own alternative course that appeals to people’s lives. Shouting about freedom and democracy is fine, but these are abstractions that have no stable definition and often no material affect. Most citizens go throughout their lives never feeling the injustice that the opposition is claiming.
Politics, however, is rarely played among the masses. It is more often the game of the few. Here the over the top police presence was certainly a sign that the state was watching with concern. However, some may say that the protest was unsuccessful because protestors only outnumbered police by 2 to 1. But really, it was the state that lost this one. First, the state’s unwarranted intimidation and coercion made the “March of Dissent” news. The English language press is already eating the story up. Second, having so many police shows that Other Russia poses a threat to someone and something in the government. Other Russia can therefore take this as a sign that they have some political impact since their political influence is nil. Third, the fact that Other Russia successfully defied the city’s ban on the march and got a decent turnout gives them an emotional and moral victory. Whether that can be harnessed into real political action remains to be seen.