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‘Violence is a duty’ St. Petersburg law enforcement raid local bars for refusing to comply with coronavirus restrictions

Source: Meduza
Alexander Koryakov / Kommersant

In the early hours of Wednesday, November 9, law enforcement officials carried out raids at several bars in St. Petersburg. The searches came after a group of several dozen local restaurants, bars, and cafes announced plans to disregard the city administration’s restrictions for the New Year holidays, which were introduced to counter the spread of COVID-19. Commenting on the raids, St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Evgeny Yelin said that the police had every right to use force, describing violence as as their “duty.”

In St. Petersburg, officials from the Investigative Committee, police, National Guard (Rosgvardiya), public health authority (Rospotrebnadzor), and Property Control Committee carried out raids at local bars in the early hours of Wednesday, November 9. According to the Investigative Committee, three establishments were found to be violating anti-coronavirus measures (presumably, referring to bars that were operating after 11:00 p.m., which is contrary to official restrictions).

Entrepreneur Alexander Konovalov, the organizer behind the so-called “Resistance Map” — a project consisting of establishments in St. Petersburg that refuse to comply with coronavirus-related restrictions — told the local newspaper Fontanka about a raid at the Commode Bar on Rubinstein Street, in particular.

According to Konovalov, law enforcement officers broke down the door to the establishment and took four people down to the police station (Fontanka later clarified that it was actually three people). The newspaper uploaded a video of the raid, in which law enforcement officers can be seen kicking people inside the bar and beating them with truncheons; a few more people can be seen lying face-down on the floor. 

Commode manager Oksana Vasilenko told Fontanka that the bar was operating behind closed doors, but one of its patrons was likely a “shill.” According to her, when the inspectors rang the doorbell, one man wanted to open the door himself. The bar’s staff members tried to stop him, but they “didn’t hit [him],” Vasilenko underscored. After that, the officers broke down the door — probably due to the sound of the scuffle, the manager said.

“They [the law enforcement officers] didn’t walk in, they ran in aggressively, shouting, and started putting everyone on the floor. If someone tried to ask [questions] or didn’t comply, they felt the full force of a truncheon. They didn’t tell us anything, they didn’t say anything, girls and guys got it with their faces to the floor and a truncheon from above,” Vasilenko recalled. According to her, there were about 20 people inside the bar, including eight employees. Several managed to escape but the rest were written up. The police took the three staff members who were trying to stop the “shill.”

St. Petersburg’s Deputy Governor Evgeny Yelin told Fontanka that a police officer and an official from the Property Control Committee were inside the bar. According to the deputy governor, law enforcement officers used force because they weren’t let out of the bar. Yelin added that “for the restaurateurs, violence against residents is unacceptable,” but “from the side of the police violence is a duty.” “By virtue of the law they are bodies of violence. Violence is only possible from the side of law enforcement agencies,” the deputy governor said. 

‘Worse than lockdown’

In early December, the St. Petersburg authorities ordered restaurants, bars, and cafes to close from December 31 to January 3, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In addition, these establishments will only be allowed to remain open until 7:00 p.m., from January 4–10. Museums, exhibitions, and concert halls were ordered to close for the duration of the New Year holidays. When it later emerged that theaters were selling tickets for New Year’s performances despite the ban, the municipal authorities demanded that they change their plans immediately. City officials specifically asked residents of other regions to refrain from travelling to St. Petersburg, in the hopes of avoiding an influx of tourists over the holiday season.

Restaurants began rebelling against the new restrictions immediately. On December 8, entrepreneur Alexander Konovalov announced the launch of the “Resistance Map” and published a list of establishments that were refusing to close. Several dozen restaurants, bars, and cafes have already joined the project and have no plans to comply with official restrictions. “It’s a simple calculation: if everyone works openly, there’s a greater chance that they’ll listen to us. Whatever sanctions there are, it’s still not death. And not working is death, no exaggeration. The authorities chose a blow worse than lockdown,” Konovalov told RBC. 

Unexpectedly, Kremlin-linked catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin, who hails from St. Petersburg himself, spoke out in defense of local restaurants. “Certainly, the city has difficulties and these difficulties are linked to the coronavirus. The restaurants have been in hell for a year already now and, as of April, they’re on the verge of death. [...] And so of course their cry for help can’t be left unnoticed and it’s necessary to enter into a dialogue with them,” Prigozhin said, as quoted by his press service. 

The Kremlin, on the other hand, has refused to intervene in the conflict between the St. Petersburg business owners and municipal officials. On Wednesday, December 9, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov described the backlash as “resistance not to the regional authorities, but resistance against the people whose lives they [the restaurateurs] are going to endanger.” At the same time, Peskov admitted that restaurants are suffering heavy losses and called for “building a dialogue.”

According to official data, St. Petersburg currently has more than 60,000 active coronavirus cases. And the daily increase in infections exceeds 3,000 cases. On December 7, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov said that the city is getting close to crossing a “red line,” which would mean “the cancellation of routine medical care in hospitals and the transitioning of all clinics to an infectious [disease] regime.”

Update: Later in the day on December 9, the Russian Investigative Committee opened two criminal cases against three St. Petersburg bars that were, according to officials, operating illegally at night (after 11:00 p.m.). The cases were opened on charges of “violating sanitary and epidemiological regulations,” which carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison. In addition, Rospotrebnadzor has suspended operations at these establishments temporarily and opened a case for administrative violations.

Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart

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