The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russian authorities just arrested an entire conference hall full of people. I was one of them.

Police officers stand in front of a hotel where participants of a forum of independent members of municipal councils gathered in Moscow on March 13. (Victor Berezkin/AP)
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MOSCOW — For years, local politics have been the last bastion of pluralism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. After the Kremlin cemented its control over national institutions — taming parliament, manipulating elections and denying registration to opposition parties — municipal legislatures have continued to provide a platform for regime opponents and independent politicians who often scored upset electoral victories despite the regime’s worst efforts. From Moscow to St. Petersburg to Siberia, local opposition lawmakers have made a visible dent in the Kremlin’s carefully crafted image of unchallenged political dominance.

But with Putin’s approval numbers at near-record lows, and as September’s parliamentary election draws closer, it seems that even this low-level political challenge is now too dangerous to be tolerated.

On Saturday, some 150 lawmakers representing 56 regions and tens of thousands of voters across Russia gathered in Moscow for the first-ever national Forum of Municipal Deputies. The goal was to spend two days networking and sharing experience about local elections and grass-roots campaigning. I was among those scheduled to address the meeting. This was a continuation of the venerable tradition of the Zemstvo Congresses, which also brought together elected local government representatives in the early 20th century, ultimately preparing the way for Russia’s first constitution and parliament in 1906.

This point was not lost on the Kremlin. As the forum was getting underway, several dozen police officers marched into the conference room. The commanding officer seized the floor from former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who had just begun his opening remarks, and announced that our meeting was “illegal” and that all its participants were being taken into police custody. The initial burst of laughter from the audience quickly changed to chants of “shame” and “fascists” as officers grabbed each of us by the arms and escorted us outside to waiting prisoner vans.

Even those of us seasoned in Russian politics could not remember a case when an entire conference hall was taken into custody. In all, around 200 people were detained, most of them incumbent lawmakers — all democratically elected representatives of the Russian people. As opposition politician Lev Shlosberg aptly noted, the last time something similar happened in Russia was when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks disbanded the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

Discussions planned at the forum continued in prisoner vans and later at police stations around Moscow, where we were charged with the administrative offense of “carrying out the activities of a foreign undesirable organization.” The organization in question was Open Russia, an opposition group founded by exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who neither organized nor spoke at the forum. Needless to say, municipal lawmakers at the conference had no connection with Open Russia; many of them first learned of the group’s existence from their indictment papers.

In the old days, Russian authorities would create quasilegal pretexts — such as planting drugs — for the persecution of opposition activists. It seems they no longer care for appearances — and why would they, if they can just accuse anyone they don’t like of having links to a blacklisted organization? The Kremlin has also clearly lost any sense of irony. Two days after disrupting a conference of elected Russian lawmakers, the Russian government hosted a delegation from Hezbollah, designated as a terrorist group in much of the democratic world. Anything Franz Kafka could have imagined pales in comparison.

Our trials will begin in the coming days. The first conviction on this charge carries only a fine — but a second one within a year would open the door to criminal indictment, with the penalty of up to six years in prison and disqualification from running for elections at any level. It’s a masterful way for the Kremlin to remove an entire slate of opposition candidates from the September election with one stroke. “This repressive mechanism is being constructed not only for political leaders and activists, but for all Russian citizens,” wrote veteran opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky. “Its main purpose is to spread fear in society. Putin’s regime has no other instruments left.”

Fear, however, is a limited instrument. It can work for a time — but not forever. The police colonel who prevented me from making a reference to the Zemstvo Congresses at Saturday’s forum has unwittingly completed the historical parallel. Those gatherings, at first, were also held clandestinely, in private residences; their participants were also arrested, cautioned and banned from public life.

But when public demands for change became unstoppable, it was the zemstvo leaders who rightfully took leading roles in the new Russian parliament. History, as Mark Twain said, does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. One day, Putin will find out just how true this statement is.

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