Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Russia Returns to Worst Soviet Traditions on Secrecy in Ever More Ways

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 21 – “The level of total secrecy in Russia is returning to Soviet standards,” Yekaterina Butorina and Aleksey Mikhaylov write, with the rules governing classification themselves typically secret and when the publication of secret information in the press does not mean that someone who cites that can’t be charged with violating the law.

            In a 3,000-word article on the Profile portal today, the two journalists say that “for Russians it has become equally dangerous both to know a state secret and not to have any relationship to it at all” because if someone reveals secret information in the media, anyone who cites it can be charged with treason (

            Ignorance, Butorina and Mikhaylov continue, “is no salvation from responsibility for its publication. Lists of secrets are now being established in every ministry and agency, and any knowledge about one is a secret for the others,” thus deepening the mysteriousness the authorities have created and are exploiting.

            In the law on state secrets, there are paragraphs regulating all this but most of them are “extraordinarily abstract” and subject to expansion by the discredited Soviet legal principle of extrapolation by analogy.  Thus, what started as a reason effort to protect information about parts of the defense and intelligence budgets has been extended to ever more things like banking, like strategic mineral reserves, and the property of the elite.

            Mikhail Subbotin of IMEMO notes that “in Soviet times, everything was classified. We made a zigzag [away from that in the late 1980s and early 1990s] and now are returning to those times.” That gives the authorities the power to bring charges against anyone including those who refer to materials that they have no reason to know are classified.

            Indeed, a 2004 law specifies that “the fact of the publication of information in the media ‘cannot serve as the basis for removing the classification” originally assigned. That remains unless those who classified the item take that step. Unless they do, everything once classified remains such, much as was the case in Soviet times. 
            What makes this especially horrific, the two journalists say, is that this instruction itself was classified secret.  Russians have been able to learn of it or at least parts of it only because judges have referred to it in court decisions, quite possibly violating the law against revealing state secrets in the process.

             According to one lawyer with whom the two journalists spoke, all these arrangements governing state secrets in Russia today “violate a basic constitutional principle” that an individual cannot be charged and punished for doing something that he or she does not know is a crime. 

            The attorney adds that “the institution of state secrets and the mechanism of its regulation must be reviewed.” People must know what the rules are, and the authorities must be forced to live within them as well. That wasn’t true in Soviet times, and it is not true now under Vladimir Putin.

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