Russian police detained more than 180 people Saturday at a conference of independent municipal deputies in Moscow — accusing participants of violating the law by attending a pro-democracy forum with ties to an organization the government has labeled “undesirable.”
“The Forum of Independent Deputies,” organized by a group called United Democrats, brought together municipal deputies — and prospective candidates— from across the country to discuss strategies for Russia’s fall election season.
The day’s first panel — a session titled “Can Change Begin at the Municipal Level?” — was concluding as police entered the conference room and announced the proceedings were over.
Authorities said the event was sponsored by Open Russia, an organization they labeled “undesirable” in 2017 for its financial ties to the exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
A law claims to target foreign NGOs whose activities threaten the foundations of Russia's constitutional system, defense or national security.
Keynote speakers — including Andrei Pivovarov, executive director of Open Russia, former Yekaterinburg Mayor Evgeny Roizman, and Moscow local government representative Ilya Yashin — were quickly detained. Within an hour, scores of police arrested the entire assembled crowd, including several journalists.
“This is nonsense,” said Pivovarov, who noted the forum was little more than an educational exchange. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“If they wanted to prevent us from holding the event, they had plenty of opportunities,” he later continued in a video posting from the back of a police van. “Their goal was to show everyone who came that you should be afraid to get involved in politics.”
“Franz Kafka would probably envy what’s happening in our country. He couldn’t possibly have had enough imagination” said opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, in a reference to the Bohemian novelist who chronicled the absurd.
“I never seen a whole conference arrested,” he marveled as officers closed in.
Russia’s TASS News Agency later reported that police subsequently accused participants of violating public gathering restrictions due to the coronavirus — despite masks and gloves being mandatory for entry to the event.
Monitoring group OVD-INFO later released a list of those detained and placed their number at more than 180.
The arrests were the latest in a string of detentions of more than 10,000 opposition figures and activists — including the sentencing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny to about two-and-a-half years in prison for alleged past parole violations last month.
Navalny had been among those leading efforts to chip away at the Kremlin-backed United Russia’s majority in local state parliaments — where polls show cratering support for the ruling party.
Indeed, during local elections in 2019, grass roots campaigns — and a Navalny led strategy of so-called “Smart Voting” aimed at coalescing votes against pro-Kremlin candidates — saw opposition candidates make significant gains.
“Today we saw once again that the Kremlin is terribly afraid of municipal deputies and the very idea of local governance,” wrote Yulia Galiamina, a local Moscow deputy who won her seat in 2019 and was set to participate in the forum before she was detained.
She added that among those supporting the initiative are “real people who want to live a good life in their own country and choose their representatives.”