Sunday, January 10, 2010

Russian Lawmakers Weigh Criminal Penalties for Blocking Traffic

Blocking traffic has sometimes been a repertoire of last resort for protesters in Russia (and elsewhere). It has sometimes been an effective means of fighting for pensions, back wages, and other benefits.  According to the New York Times:
Until now, blocking traffic has been considered an administrative violation rather than a criminal one, and has seldom been prosecuted. When the government proposed abolishing a range of benefits in 2005, tens of thousands of pensioners took to the streets for a week, blocking some roadways, and Mr. Putin publicly backtracked, making substantial changes in the law. Demonstrators also blocked traffic in Vladivostok late in 2008, protesting the government’s plan to raise tariffs on imported cars.
Now the Russian Parliament is considering making such public contention a criminal offense with very steep penalties.  Some Russian activists see disruption of traffic and economic activity as a last resort.  As one longtime activist put it:
“I am against blocking traffic; I don’t consider it a peaceful method of protest,” said Ms. Alexeyeva, 82, who was arrested on New Year’s Eve when she participated in an unsanctioned demonstration. “But why are they forced to pass such a law? Because all the peaceful methods are prohibited, and this forces people to extremes. You have to understand: when a teapot is boiling and you plug all the holes, you know what will happen.”
The proposed law shows that politicians are losing their patience with public disruption.  But protesters are aware that this sort of disruption is sometimes the only form of contention that gets official and public attention.  Simply put, sometimes protest must be substantially disruptive to be at all effective.  Contrary to the statement of the activist quoted above, I do not see blocking traffick as a violent form of civil disobedience.  It is, of course, a violation of the law.  Protesters may be punished for engaging in this form of contention.  But to criminalize peaceful protest is essentially to chill it, or to repress it entirely should the penalties be too stiff.  If you are protesting lost wages, how likely is it that you will be willing to pay a $3,000-plus fine?  The proposed law appears to be an effort to end a particular type of public demonstration.  For the sake of Russian civil liberties, let us hope it fails in Parliament.    




  

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