Monday, March 17, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russian Duma Takes Up Three Dangerous ‘Law-Like’ Measures

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – Every language contains words which say more than those who use them intend or even recognize.  One such word or better suffix in Russia is “podobny” which means “like” or “analogous to.”  Thus, Russians sometimes speak of something being “science-like” -- that is, something that looks like science but really isn’t.

            That suffix should be applied to three measures now before the Duma which are intended to look like laws but are in fact something else because if they approved in their current forms, they push Russia even further away from the modern, law-based state its leaders declare it to be, and some of its well-wishers often assume it already is.

            The first of these is a proposal by the Communist Party to restore the Soviet-era nationality line in passports and other official documents and to add a new one to fix religious affiliation as well. The second would impose criminal penalties on Russophobia. And the third would open the way to the legalization of the annexation of neighboring countries.

            Each looks like a law – indeed, it takes the form of legislation and has some of the characteristics of law in the ordinary sense – but each represents a threat to the legal and constitutional order of the Russian Federation.  At the very least, if they are viewed as “laws,” they highlight the fact that a Rechtstaat can be anything but a state of law.

            Claiming that voters have asked them to take this step, several KPRF deputies have introduced a draft bill that would restore the nationality line in passports and other official documents and add an additional one for religious affiliation (

            The authors stress that this would be completely voluntary and commentators are suggesting that the measure, which at present appears unlikely to pass, should be dismissed as nothing more than part of the KPRF’s pre-election posturing.  But for those who remember how the nationality line was abused in Soviet times, this suggestion is worrisome.

            On the one hand, the KPRF’s predecessor, the CPSU, routinely used the nationality line to discriminate against Jews and other groups and to force people to declare a nationality, something that the 1993 Russian Constitution specifies no citizen of that country can be forced to do. What the KPRF says will be voluntary is unlikely to remain so, if adopted.

            On the other, this KPRF document is particularly troubling because it would open the way for equivalent actions against members of religious groups, forcing people either to lie about their religious preference or lack thereof or face the risk of being discriminated against by officials who not so long ago persecuted people for believing at all.
            The second measure, which would impose fines of up to 50,000 rubles (1300 US dollars) or detention for up to 15 days for “propaganda of Russophobia,” probably has a greater chance of passage, given that at least some of its backers say that such a measure is necessary because of events in Ukraine (

            Like many other “law-like” measures of the Putin era, this bill does not define with any precision what it would punish and thus gives the authorities the opportunity to apply it to anyone they want to, thereby violating a fundamental requirement of law and sending a chill throughout the society.

            And third, the Duma is set to consider legislation that would allow the Russian Federation to absorb territories now within other states. Indeed, according to Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the Duma Committee on the CIS, if adopted, it would allow Russia to recover Crimea and other territories on the post-Soviet space (

            Slutsky said that before the measure could be considered, it would have to be examined by legal experts.  But Aleksandr Ageyev, the first deputy chairman of the Duma’s Constitutional Law and State Construction Committee, says that Crimea could become part of Russia “without the adoption of special laws,” although such a step, he said, would require introducing changes in the Russian Constitution.

            That last qualification is presumably a reference to the enumeration of federal subjects found in the Constitution rather than anything more radical, but such statements are yet another an indication that the Russia of Vladimir Putin is now operating not as a law-based state but only as one “analogous” to that status.

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