Post a Link, Go to Jail: Russia Tries To Silence Protest

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By Leonid Bershidsky

Before the Russian parliament went on summer vacation, it passed what is possibly the most odious series of bills in the history of the country's lawmaking. The legislation sets the tone for President Vladimir Putin's current term in power, due to end in 2018. The message is clear: If you are not with Putin, keep it to yourself.

It is sometimes difficult to pin down why Russia is called a restrictive, authoritarian society. Its laws were mainly written in the rollicking 1990s, an age of political freedom now remembered with nostalgia by Russian radicals and liberals alike. Tyranny in Putin's Russia has always been an elusive, selective phenomenon. It was reflected now and then in the fall from grace of a businessman, the firing of an editor, an unfair trial or the mysterious killing of an activist. Generally, dissent and protest were possible within a rather liberal framework.

The current parliament, which came to power last December in a blatantly rigged election, is now doing its best to make the tyranny more complete. Here's a quick tour of its latest measures.

1. It introduced fines and 15 days' imprisonment for publishing hyperlinks to “extremist materials.” Any content can be deemed “extremist” by a court. Electronic media risk hefty fines and the loss of their licenses for publishing such links.

2. It increased the punishment for “slander,” or criminal defamation. The offense now carries a maximum prison term of one year, and a maximum fine of 5 million rubles ($150,000) for slandering an official. The drafters of this bill openly targeted blogger Alexei Navalny, who regularly accuses bureaucrats of corruption.

3. It set large fines (up to $10,000) for organizing and participating in protests without official permission. The bill declared “mass simultaneous presence of citizens in public areas” an offense, effectively rescinding Russians' constitutional freedom of assembly.

4. It invested an as-yet-unspecified non-governmental organization with the power to shut down websites for disseminating information dangerous to children. The bill, which allows broad censorship of the Internet, passed despite protests from Russian Wikipedia, Google and its Russian competitor, Yandex.

5. It obliged NGOs receiving foreign grants to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents" -- a status that subjects them to greater scrutiny. Government officials, for example, can audit them anytime someone complains about “signs of extremism” in their activities, and they must mention their foreign-agent status in all their materials. The bill's drafters, members of Putin's United Russia party, are already talking about spreading the practice to foreign-owned media.

6. It decided that all regular local elections are to be held on a single day, the second Sunday of September. Previously, elections were held twice a year, in September and March. The change puts smaller parties at a disadvantage, because they lack the resources to run simultaneous campaigns across the country, and because they will have to campaign in summer, when voter interest is low.

7. It diluted former President Dmitri Medvedev's promise to bring back gubernatorial elections. Candidates will have to jump several hurdles to get on the ballot. For example, they'll need to get the support of local legislators just to be allowed to run -- a requirement that has caused the opposition much anguish.

8. When the lower house of parliament returns to work in September, it will consider a bill limiting volunteer activities. The current draft legislation says any volunteer working in a hospice, a disaster area or an orphanage must have a contract with some organization and carry insurance. The move appears to be payback for the embarrassment the government suffered during a recent flash flood in the southern Russian city of Krymsk. Thousands of volunteers flocked to the area to aid victims and clean up, taking over from hapless bureaucrats who had failed to even warn the population that the flood was coming.

Politicians offered the public little meaningful explanation of the measures. “Life changes, the situation in society changes, and, naturally, certain violations of the law can be dangerous to various degrees at different stages in society's development," said Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the lower house, in an interview with the pro-Kremlin magazine Expert. Apparently, activism and criticism of the government have been deemed more dangerous than before.

One legislator, Ilya Ponomaryov, took issue with the great haste in which the bills were drafted and passed. He was ignored. The legislation limiting the freedom of assembly took all of two weeks to fly through the Duma. The passage of the slander bill took just three days.

Liberal critics pointed to numerous contradictions in the new laws and speculated that they could just as easily be used against Putin supporters. “Our people are clever and they will find a way around these laws,” Ponomaryov said. “We are just forcing people to break the law en masse." Columnist Igor Maltsev, writing for the magazine Snob, declared the drafters “an assembly of C students” in a blog post that attracted more than 40,000 hits.

The laws' imperfections do not worry Putin or his loyalists in parliament. Quite the opposite: “The stupidest laws work best when they need to be used selectively,” political scientist Grigory Golosov wrote on the website The greater the scope for interpretation, the greater the power of Putin's enforcers to punish whomever they choose.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Jul/18/2012 14:01 GMT