Staunton, May 23 – In recent years, Russian officials have routinely made negative comments about ordinary people, suggesting they and not the government are responsible for all their problems, Dmitry Sarkisov says. “Sometimes it seems they are competing abut who can be the most insulting.”
Until recently, the Lenta journalist says, there was little or nothing an ordinary Russian could do in response unless the remark was so outrageous that more senior officials felt the need to transfer the official involved lest his words spark something that could threaten the state itself (lenta.ru/articles/2020/05/23/obscene/).
Sarkisov cites numerous cases in the last several years when officials made horrific remarks and recounts the ways that many got away with nothing but a slap on the wrist if that. But several recent cases give hope that the situation will change and officials will have to be more careful or will face not only removal but major fines as well.
The need for such legal arrangements was highlighted two weeks ago when an official responded to Vladimir Putin’s policy of providing money to families with children to help them get through the crisis by saying online under an easily unmasked alias about ordinary Russians that “the more they’re given, the more they want.”
People were outraged by such callousness, and within 24 hours, the official lost his job – but only because the media covered it and not because there was any legal requirement for the bureaucrat to avoid such remarks – unlike in the case of anyone who made similarly dismissive comments about government officials.
“Mid-level regional bureaucrats in recent years with increasing frequency have demonstrated that ordinary people for them are slaves” whose needs and wants must be respected, Sarkisov says. Instead, they have acted as if the two groups are separate species, one of which must be respected but the other deserves nothing but contempt.
The journalist continues: “In countries where elections work better than in Russia, such politicians and officials certainly would pay with votes against them and lose their places in the next elections. In the US, for example, even a sheriff is an elected position, but Russia has not yet reached that level of development.”
But what Russian politicians and officials have done is to introduce laws that make it an offense for the population to criticize them, even though until very recently they’ve been completely unwilling to see legislation pass that would impose similar restrictions on the members of their own class.
Some politicians have proposed such legislation over the last several years, but it didn’t go anywhere. Now, however, the ice may be breaking. In December 2019, Vladimir Putin said that an individual who works for the government must not display contempt for ordinary people. If he does, “there is no place” for him among officials or politicians.
The day after the official said that giving Russians anything is a mistake because they’ll only want more, Andrey Turchak, secretary of the United Russia council and deputy speaker of the Federation Council, and Aleksandr Khinshteyn, who heads the Duma committee on information policy, introduced such a bill.
As written, it would impose fines of 100,000 to 150,000 rubles (1600 to 2400 US dollars) and disqualification from service for a year for first offenses and more significant fines and two years disqualification for repeated offenses. Such penalties should give officials pause before speaking and equalize the debates between them and ordinary people.
On the one hand, such a development is welcome especially as it moves toward equalizing the speech rights of officials and citizens. But on the other, it is troubling because it seeks to solve with legal punishments that will be imposed by officials what should in fact be resolved by unfettered debate and the actions of the democratic process.
Because it may be the best that can be hoped for in Putin’s anything but democratic system, it is a step forward; but it is only one step forward and if misused as such measures almost inevitably are in Russia, it may ultimately constitute two or more steps back and become another weapon of repression in the hands of even more officials than those making the remarks.