Grigory Frolov

Development Director of Free Russia Foundation

The Bolotnaya case. Three years with no right for justice

May 6, 2015 marks the third sad anniversary of the events on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow.

On that day, on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as the President of the Russian Federation for his third term, perhaps as many as 100,000 Muscovites and people from all around Russia gathered in Bolotnaya Square, which is located in the heart of the Russian capital. Those people participated in the “March of Millions,” protesting against the rigged parliamentary and presidential elections and the corrupt state and demonstrating that there is another force in Russia besides the Kremlin.

The protesters were met by thousands of policemen and state security troops. Men, women, and even the elderly were severely beaten, and hundreds were arrested. The period of remarkable democratic non-violent actions of 2011 – 2012 ended at that moment. The system chose to violently counter the opposition and suppress it.

The next day, the presidential motorcade drove Putin from his suburban residence to the Kremlin through an absolutely silent, cleaned up and police-blocked city center of a large Russian capital.

On May 7, the Russian Investigative Committee initiated the Bolotnaya Case on the charges of an alleged massive riot (art. 212 of the Russian Criminal code) and an alleged violence against police (art. 318 of the Russian Criminal code). As of today, thirty people have been officially accused of violating this law, while another eighty are under investigation by state authorities. This case has become notorious due to numerous violations of Russian laws and the rights of the prosecuted individuals.

Free Russia Foundation has interviewed several Russian opposition activists whose lives were dramatically changed by the Bolotnaya case: they had to flee Russia to avoid imprisonment and seek asylum in Europe. We asked our traditional questions: “How could you describe the state of the Russian society right now?” and “What positive changes in Russia would make you consider returning?” We also asked them what the Bolotnaya case means to them. Here are their responses:

Vsevolod Chernozub, Solidarity movement, December 5 political party

What does the Bolotnaya case mean to you?

It’s a very personal story, because it dramatically changed my life. I fled from Russia, quit my job, left my favorite city and my close circle of friends. All my activities and hobbies are connected with people, with my community, with my environment. It’s like a sea for a sailor. I had to build everything around me again.

For my country, the Bolotnaya case is the main political process against the opposition. Having withstood the explosion of discontent in December 2011 and consequent rallies of protests, the authorities took the revanchist stance on May 6, 2012. It wasn’t something new: the authorities in Iran did the same after protests in 2009 as well as the Byelorussian authorities after the presidential elections of 2010. At first they arrest “random people” оf absolutely different occupations so that the society got scared. Their message is simple: “Rallies are dangerous. We can arrest anyone.” Then they imprison famous opposition leaders and expose a “conspiracy.” Then, once in a while they remind the society about this case, by conducting searches in some apartments, declaring somebody is wanted or arresting someone.

The Bolotnaya case is a hook, on which the authorities put dozens of activists and the entire society. From time to time they pull the hook with a new victim to make sure the process is going on and keeps terrifying. So, the Bolotnaya process is not only against the opposition, but against hopes for changes, Europezation and democratization of the country.

How could you describe the state of the Russian society right now?

It has been degradating all the years since Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Injections of extra income from raw materials gave a sense that the trend can be changed. That there is a capitalist culture, a middle class, a demand for civil rights, freedoms and political representation. However, it was a self-deception. The world’s development, including energy-saving technologies and sanctions against Russia will destroy our economy, which is based on an insane and pathological plundering and selling-out of our natural resources. It appears we don’t have any bourgeoisie, and a percentage of people working for themselves is minimum. On the contrary, we have a horde, millions of people working in a state service, in shoulder straps, rentiers, budget people, etc. Putin has chosen a way out from an economic crisis: mobilization, war and a fight against the Fifth Column. Maybe he’ll be overthrown and a new Perestroika will be launched. But in any event there will be a shock therapy independently if it’s going to be democratization or dictatorization. So, we fall to the past in terms of social development. We need to create a middle class, self-employed people, tax-payers. The current social model will exhaust itself if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow.

What positive changes in Russia would make you consider returning?

To Russia of hopes and perspectives. I don’t like the motivation «Like in Europe» or «Like in America,» because we have our own difficulties and challenges. The difference between Russia and the European Union reminds me more of the difference between South and North Koreas.

Pavel Elizarov, Solidarity movement

What does Bolotnaya case mean to you?

The Bolotnaya case symbolizes a reactionary wave that rose in response to our protests in 2011-2012 and resulted in a shameful war with Ukraine. The Bolotnaya case abruptly changed my destiny: because of it I can’t return to Moscow that I miss terribly. On the other hands, there are guys who are for years in prison on that case. I was able to leave and live in wonderful foreign countries, so I can’t complain.

How could you describe the state of the Russian society right now?

I think it’s very difficult to adequately evaluate the general situation in Russia living abroad. Polls haven’t shown the real picture for a long time. It’s clear that the dictatorship’s supporters are very encouraged now while the opposition is demotivated. At the same time, I’ve noticed that those moods change as the pendulum swings. The question is how far it will swing this time.

What positive changes in Russia would make you consider returning?

I’d like to return to today’s Russia! But there is an uncertainty about the imprisonment, so I’ll stay away for now.

Michail Maglov, Solidarity movement, RPR-Parnas

What does Bolotnaya case mean to you?

The Bolotnaya case for me is a “hammer,” which towered over many Russian activists that participated in that rally on Bolotnaya square. Every person who was on that square on that day is still at risk at any time of being arrested if the authorities decide so. Also, the Bolotnaya case is the case that changed my life and the lives of my friends; some had to leave like me, some are in custody for fabricated cases.

How could you describe the state of the Russian society right now?

I evaluate the current situation in Russia realistically. On the one hand, the conscious part of society is under constant pressure of being influenced by propaganda or under repression. On the other hand, we remember those recent times when that conscious part was limited only to a couple of thousands people. I don’t have any pessimistic moods toward the Russian society. The state propaganda can keep telling about “86% supporters of Putin.” It’s been a myth and it still remains it. But of course, for us there is still a lot of work ahead to change the society.

What positive changes in Russia would make you consider returning?

I know I will return to a Russia that will be ready to pull itself out of this swamp. I’m ready to assist in it. As soon as I see there is a desire for change, I will return to my homeland ready to assist in that change.

 

The Bolotnaya case has become the point of no return for the Russian society, the red line that we crossed on the way to a catastrophe. The case is a tool that Putin’s government uses to send a message to active Russian citizens on what can be the cost for civil disobedience. It has become an instrument of the fight with the political opposition, an instrument to suppress it.

The Bolotnaya Case is still open. The last person who was added to the case less than month ago is Natalia Pelevina, one of the leaders of the Russian political opposition. On April 17, 2015 she was interrogated and accused in financing the riots of May 6, 2012, just a few days before she was supposed to fly to Washington, DC to give a speech on the Hill in support of the Nemtsov List.

Russia has been changed a lot during these three years; both in the Russian society and the state. Dozers of unconstitutional laws were passed by the Russian Parliament to terrify the life of everyone who opposes the current Kremlin. Just a few of the most famous of them are the Foreign Agents Law against Non-Governmental organizations; the Lugovoy Law of extrajudicial blocking of web recourses; the Sidyakin Law for tightening liability for violation of the rules organizing rallies; and the famous law against “LGBT propaganda.” We saw the Pussy Riot case and numerous criminal prosecutions against anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his colleagues.

Unfortunately, all those facts were not relevant enough for the world leaders to understand who Mr. Putin 3.0 is. The world was more interested in watching the Sochi Olympics, but not the rapid strengthening of an authoritarian regime in Russia. Now, we have Boris Nemtsov shot dead 50 meters from the Kremlin’s walls and Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine.

All of that was started with the Bolotnaya case and its prisoners. The world missed the significance of Putin’s repression of human rights and millions are now paying the price.