For Russian Dissidents, It's White Ribbon Day in Moscow

Behind the anti-Putin movement's symbolic protest

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Activists protest in Red Square, central Moscow on May 27, 2012. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Social activists in Moscow have dubbed February 5  White Ribbon Day, urging residents to wear the ribbons that have become the symbol of the demand for free elections. The call, made on a Facebook page, comes after weeks of media rumors -- unfounded, as it turns out -- that the Moscow city council, or duma, had banned displaying the white ribbon at its December 26, 2012 session.

Television host Vladimir Posner even asked Moscow Culture Department head Sergei Kapkov to comment on the alleged "ban" during a February 3 broadcast on state TV's Channel One. Kapkov said the measure was needed to protect protesters. "Such ribbons can be taken as a provocation -- when you are riding in the metro, when you are using public transportation," Kapkov said. "And we have already had cases when there was physical interference in the life of another person."
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Kapkov's comments set off alarm bells among activists, and Moscow City Duma Chairman Vladimir Platonov was quick to announce that no such ban had been adopted.

Following the December 2011 State Duma elections, tens of thousands of Muscovites poured into the streets festooned in white ribbons. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously mocked the ribbons during a marathon question-and-answer session with citizens on December 15, 2011. "To be honest, when I saw on television what some people had attached to themselves -- it's not very polite, but I'll say it anyway -- I thought it was an anti-AIDS campaign," Putin said. "I thought they had stuck, excuse me, condoms on themselves."​​

Symbolic Act of Protest

In the 14 months since then, the opposition has lost much of its energy, and only a few hundred people have signed onto the social-media-driven White Ribbon Day event. It will be difficult to measure the impact of the event, organizer Ilya Faybisovich says. But he adds that it's important to send a signal to the authorities. "This action -- if you can really call it that -- is sort of a roll call, some sort of signal into space that even if we don't normally wear white ribbons ourselves, for whatever reason, we will put them on if they tell us that for some reason it is forbidden to wear them," Faybisovich says. "And that seems like a reasonable reaction to me."

In its final 2012 session, however, the Moscow City Duma did adopt measures aimed at restricting protests in the capital. It banned single-person protests if they were determined to have been organized and coordinated. It also banned the use of motor vehicles in demonstrations within the city center. It also adopted measures to set up so-called "speakers' corners" in two Moscow parks, on the model of the famous institution in London's Hyde Park.

In his interview with Pozner, Moscow official Kapkov defended this initiative, which Pozner said had been criticized as a "fictional" version of political dissent. "This is not fiction -- if you separate the topic of Hyde Park from the political discussion. There are a lot of people who are defending the interests of the homeless or abandoned animals -- that is, there are people who want to attract the attention of the authorities and television to the problems that they have devoted their free time to or that concern them," Kapkov said. "In order for them [now] to hold a public event, they have to apply to City Hall and that, unfortunately, is now all politicized. And it takes a very long time."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.