Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Three Disturbing New Russian Legal Initiatives

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 16 – The Kremlin’s moves against the principles of the Russian Constitution and basic human rights are currentl coming at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to keep up with its assault on what remains of democracy in that country.

            This week alone featured three initiatives that are particularly worrisome: a government-backed bill allowing the confiscation of property of relatives of those who engage in terrorism, another bill that shifts responsibility for maintaining ethnic peace away from Moscow and to governors and mayors, and new moves to increase the government’s censorship powers.

            What makes each of these developments so disturbing is that they have been clothed in superficially noble terms, something that makes it more difficult to criticism them, but that they all too clearly open the way to further abuses of power. Indeed, one Tuvan commentator has suggested that they are removing the last vestiges of democracy from the Russian scene.

            Yesterday, the Duma passed overwhelmingly on first reading, 430 to one, with one abstention, a bill that would allow the government to confiscate the property of relatives of those who engage in terrorist acts to compensate the victims, make it easier for the state to classify an organization as terrorist, and increase criminal responsibilities for those providing instruction leading to such acts (

            Fighting terrorism, like the Soviet victory in World War II, is rapidly becoming a universal moral solvent that blocks any steps taken in its name.  Confiscating the property of those who engage in terrorism is one thing; confiscating that of their relatives is quite another and undoubtedly will be used to intimidate extended families in the Caucasus.

            Given how willing the Russian authorities have been to classify groups as terrorist, it is hard not to see that this new measure will mean that even more groups will be categorized as such and thus banned. And the third provision about instruction can also be extended to include anyone who sends a relative to study in a school where anyone has ever talked about terrorism.

            Indeed, in each of these cases, the discredited Stalinist legal theory of extension by analogy threatens to make a further comeback in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

            Also yesterday, the Duma passedon first and second readings a bill that would place primary responsibility on governors and mayors for the struggle against xenophobia and ethnic conflicts and put the latter at risk of losing their positions if any violence of that kind breaks out (

On the one hand, this is a clever way for the Kremlin to avoid taking responsibility for the situation in the country by saying that the governors and mayors bear it. As many Russians have complained, Vladimir Putin has not spoken out or taken actions that they believe he should as “guarantor of the Russian constitution.”

And on the other, this measure will entail the additional consequence of meaning that governors and mayors will become more repressive in order to keep their jobs, although the bill does not specify how they could lose their positions and thus opens the way to more abuses. And these leaders will do that because mos will be operating beyond intense Moscow media scrutiny.

             Thus, and without it ever being specified in the law or discussed in the Russian media, Russian citizens will find themselves under the thumb of an ever more authoritarian state, and Putin will present himself to many credulous Westerners as being above such things and thus their best hope for democracy and free markets.

            And third, as “Novyye izvestiya” reported today, the Russian government is using its anti-piracy laws to tighten government control over the Internet, actions that yesterday experts the Open Government group said exceeded the provisions of those laws and threatened public debate (

              Again, as the experts cited in this extensive article argue, the Kremlin is using a nominally worthy cause for its own political purposes, winning support only from those who have not paid attention to what is going on or who are prepared to accept the assurances of the Russian government that what it is doing is all for the best.

            One who does not accept that view is Sayana Mongush, a distinguished Tuvan journalist, who told RFE/RL yesterday that tragically, in Russia today, “there do not remain any signs of a democratic state” and that equally tragically, the Russian state is setting in train an even larger disaster ahead (

            Commenting on the Biryulevo pogrom, she said that there was nothing “spontaneous” about it. “Without a union with the representatives of the authorities, at least deputies on the extreme right, the business community and others” who are part of the state system, the events of last weekend would have been “impossible.”

             Mongush argued that “the clericalization of the country, which is taking place under the noble pretext of ‘strengthening morality’ and the legitimation of quasi-police forces in the form of all kinds of ‘popular druzhinniki’ who are in essence punitive squads of pogromshchik cast doubt that what is taking place now in Russia is “either ‘spontaneous’ or ‘popular anger.’”

               In fact, she suggested, the recent violence in the Russian capital may be only “a training exercise” for more violence in order to crush the opposition.  But Mongush added that such efforts will backfire, first and foremost in the non-Russian portions of the country like her native Tuva.

             “Russia is always accusing the national regions of separatism and even of ethnocide while it with its own hands is leading the country to collapse and disintegration,” she said. “Skinhead who kill people on a racial basis in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and remain unpunished do not completely recognize that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians living outside the major mono-national cities of central Russia may become hostages as a result of these actions.”

            If Russians attack non-Russians in Moscow, then they are sending a message to non-Russians elsewhere that it is possible to attack Russians with impunity as well, she argued.  That risk will be exploited by Moscow to increase repression of both Russians and non-Russian groups.

             Mongush concluded by suggesting that everyone should remember where this tactic first arose in Russia and why Moscow may be trying it again: Does one need to be reminded “with what enthusiasm and over-fulfilling of the plan all the republics conducted the Stalinist purges and repressions in their own areas, doubling all the undertakings of the Elder Brother?”

            That tragic history, she said, “has every chance to repeat itself” because it is not only in Moscow that there are “unhealthy and ambitious people.”

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