Fifteen years after the case was first lodged, during which the founder died, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled Russian courts had not had a strong enough case to ban radical anti-Putin group the National Bolshevik Party.
The dissolution of Russia’s radical National Bolshevik Party (NBP) in 2007 was a violation of human rights, the European Court of Human Rights has determined.
In a case that took 15 years to come to fruition, during which time the NBP’s founder died, judges finally ruled on Tuesday that banning the opposition group had been “disproportionate and unnecessary in a democratic society”.
Ruling that the six applicants’ rights under Article 11 of the Convention – to peaceful assembly and freedom of association – had been violated, the court awarded €10,000 to them jointly.
But this stopped far short of the €100,000 asked for. In her concurring opinion, Judge Maria Elosegui suggested the ban might have been justified if Russian courts had done their homework.
“I would like to explain," she wrote, "that if the [Russian] domestic courts had conducted a more substantive analysis of the violent and racist nature of the organisation, the Court might have reached a different conclusion.”
Brought down by bad behavior - and bureaucracy
The applicants were all senior members of the NBP before it was shut down in 2007 (and later replaced in 2010 with another group, The Other Russia).
They were ex-press secretary Aleksandr Averin, ex-Central Committee members Andrei Dmitriev and Fomchenkov, Aleksey Volynets, the former editor of the NBP’s official publication, and two teenage children of the late founder, Eduard Limonov.
Limonov died in a Moscow hospital in March 2020. In his youth he had become a well-known writer in exile after leaving the USSR in 1974, later returning to Moscow in 1991 to set up the NBP.
The NBP registered as a public association, but not a political party, in 1993. It borrowed its ideals from National Bolshevism, combining extreme nationalism and far-right ideals with communism and Soviet nostalgia.
The group was accused at times of having fascist tendencies, which it denied. It had a revolutionary, counter-cultural stance and many members have taken part in protests and provocative direct action.
Some of the NBP's most famous stunts were installing a dummy explosive outside a government building in Belgorod in 2003; occupying a Ministry of Health building dressed in emergency services uniforms in 2004 to protest welfare cuts; and some 40 members breaking into the reception area of the President´s Administration building in Moscow in December 2005, locking themselves inside.
In 2001 Limonov was jailed for two years alongside other Bolsheviks on terrorism charges, accused of trying to start an insurgency in Kazakhstan.
In June 2005, Moscow Regional Court banned the NBP for unlawfully using the word ‘party’ in its name. The ban was overturned in August 2005, but then reinstated that November, by the Supreme Court. The NBP kept operating regardless.
Then in April 2007, Moscow City Court declared the NBP an extremist organisation, meaning any activity aimed at reviving it would be a criminal offence. That decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in August. By the time of the ban, the group had more than 56,000 members in Russia.
Russian authorities’ case ‘not strong enough’
The seven judges of the ECHR found the NBP had tried three times in the early 2000s to get the word ‘party’ removed from its name, but was blocked by the Moscow Justice Department.
They also noted that in 2004 the group had tried to formally register itself as a political party. But this was rejected by Moscow on the official basis that the NBP had an ‘ethnic affiliation’: something political parties are not allowed to have in Russian law.
In 2007, Moscow City Court had accused the NBP of ‘incitement to hatred’, ‘calls to mass disorder’ and ‘acts of extremism’ in 2005-2006, as well as an incident of forced entry into a legislative building in St. Petersburg and smoke-bombing a polling station during the 2007 parliamentary elections.
In its assessment, the ECHR wrote: “The state’s power to protect its institutions and citizens from associations that might jeopardise them must be used sparingly.
“Exceptions to the rule of freedom of association are to be construed strictly and only convincing and compelling reasons can justify restrictions on that freedom.”
In this case, the Court found, the original dissolution hadn’t been justified because the NBP had tried to change its name. It also found the NBP had mentioned protecting the rights of both “ethnic Russians” and “all Russian-speaking people” in its literature since 2004.
Judges finally unanimously agreed that the group’s Article 11 rights had been violated. Judge Elosegui explained: “Since the domestic courts adopted a highly formalistic approach, incapable of evidencing the ethnic affiliation of the political party, the Strasbourg court is bound by the evidence on file and was obliged to conclude that the refusal to register the NBP as a political party had fallen short of the high standards set out in case law.”