Staunton, December 24 – Yesterday, in the space of a single session, the Duma passed a series of new laws restricting the freedoms of Russians, the latest of a continuing series of actions that the Putin regime has called for to oppose what it describes as “threats to national security” and to “defend citizens from Western censorship.”
The measures passed yesterday include in the first instance expanding the category “foreign agents” to include individuals and not just organizations, blocking Youtube for supposed “discrimination’ against Russian media, and imposing on social media networks the requirement to identify and block “illegal content” (svpressa.ru/politic/article/285507/).
Natalya Glukhova of Novaya gazeta surveys lawyers and human rights specialists who are unanimous in their opinions that these laws will lead to an increase in repression but that they will be applied selectively lest they provoke serious protests that the regime wants to avoid (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/12/24/88505-rossiya-pod-zapretami).
The first measure the Duma passed yesterday was a law extending to individuals the label “foreign agent” and imposing fines up to 300,000 rubles (4,000 US dollars) and prison terms of up to two years for those who fail to declare that they have received foreign funding and thus merit being included in this category.
Moscow political analyst Aleksandr Kynyev says that the law is written so that it could be applied to a huge number of people and therefore will be applied in a highly selective and political manner lest it provoke protests. SOVA head Aleksandr Verkhovsky agrees and suggests it will be used to exclude candidates from the Duma elections next year.
The second new law gives Moscow the right to block internet services if they “censor” Russian media. This includes portals like Youtube, Facebook, Twiter and many others who have supposedly “discriminated” against RT, Novosti and Crimea24 reports by labelling them false or taking them down.
Verkhovsky says that this is the latest example of Moscow’s struggle against the West but that it will fail because the authors of the law do not understand how the Internet works and how any blocking will lead to the rise of workarounds that will allow millions of Russians to continue to use these services.
The third law passed yesterday requires social networks to identify and block “illegal content,” including cursing. It can only be applied selectively, Kynyev says, because the problem it is designed to solve is simply too large for the regime to take on without shutting the entire net down, something it cannot do without damage to itself.
The fourth law imposes harsher rules on the holding of meetings; the fifth, involves criminalizing slander, a measure lawyers say is likely to be used by men against women who criticize them for harassment or worse; and the sixth, opens the way for Russian officials to seize property in the name of renovation with little or no compensation.
Other repressive laws pouring out of the Duma yesterday included one that criminalized any blocking of roads during demonstrations and imposing more serious penalties on hooliganism when someone charged with that uses force or even threatens to do so. The latter provision allows it to be applied almost to anyone, lawyers say.
Lawyers and others concerned with defending the Constitutional and human rights of Russians say they must be ready to take cases involving these measures to the Russian Constitutional Court and ultimately to the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, to at least register if not reverse what the Duma is now doing for the Kremlin.