Saturday, December 13, 2008

Russia Celebrates Constitution Day with Arrests, Dead Sheep

BOULDER, Colorado -- Friday marked the 15th anniversary of the ratification of Russia's constitution, and the celebrations varied from the depressing to the bizarre to the macabre.

The most notable incident took place inside the Kremlin, when President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a speech to 5,000 invited guests outlining proposed amendments to the constitution. During his speech, an opposition activist and journalist named Roman Dobrokhotov stood up and began shouting at the president.

"Shame on these amendments!" he shouted. The president continued speaking, but was again interrupted. "Why are you listening to him? He has violated all the rights and freedoms of the people and citizens. The constitution has been violated, there are no elections, and he goes on about the constitution."

Dobrokhotov was immediately removed from the hall by agents of the Federal Guard Service (ФСО) and was briefly detained. He will be charged with an administrative, not criminal, violation, which usually carries a fine. Here is a video of the incident from Russia's Channel 5:

Dobrokhotov is reporter for the newspaper Private Correspondent (Частный корреспондент) and a member of the liberal opposition youth group We (Мы). After the incident he claimed that he attended the speech in his role as a political activist, not as a journalist.

He also hosts a weekly radio show on a local Moscow station. After his return from the Kremlin, he was immediately informed that he had been fired, though the station manager claimed that all non-staff presenters were being fired (technically, Dobrokhotov has been hosting his show every week for the past two years as an "invited guest host"), and his termination had nothing to do with his outburst at the Kremlin.

Among the proposed changes to the constitution are extensions of terms for the president and members of parliament to six and five years, respectively, from the current four. The amendments, which will be the first ever made to the Russian constitution, have already been approved by both houses of parliament and now require the approval of two-thirds of the regional legislatures to be ratified.

To illustrate just how much the constitution really matters in Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, since 2006 Constitution Day has not been a national holiday. Instead, it has been superseded by such nationalist flag-waving days as Peoples Solidarity Day, which celebrates how much Poland sucks for joining NATO (or it has something to do with driving the Poles out of Russia in 1612. I can never remember.)

Just next door to the Kremlin on Vasilievsky Spusk, pro-Kremlin activists were celebrating with a Miss Constitution pageant. The event, organized by the nationalist youth group Nashi, had young women traipsing around an outdoor stage in skimpy dresses and swimsuits in the middle of a Russian winter while they answered inane questions about how awesome the government is. The Los Angeles Times has a story on this absurdity (the photo is from that story).

Finally, in the nearby city of Khimki, opposition activists gathered for a conference to form a new political coalition they are calling "Solidarity." When conference delegates arrived at the site on Friday, however, they were met by a bus filled with sheep wearing hats adorned with the Solidarity logo. The sheep had been mutilated, and many of them were already dead. The animals stumbled out of the bus in a bloody heap.

Police arrived at the scene and detained the driver of the bus, who claimed he didn't know why he was asked to transport these animals or who was responsible for the stunt. Police also briefly detained some 150 delegates, ostensibly to check their documents. The delegates were subjected to a number of other dirty tricks, including anonymous phone calls giving them incorrect directions to the conference, and they had their cell phones jammed.

The conference finally got underway Saturday, and organizers Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov announced the formation the group, which was approved unanimously by the delegates. Outside the meeting, a number of members of Nashi protested the event. They showed their disdain by dressing as monkeys and hurling flaming bananas at the building, a maneuver they usually reserve for commtting racially-motivated hate crimes or for soccer games to mock black players.

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