Expect a Showdown With the Kremlin in the Fall
Published: July 11, 2012 (Issue # 1717)
This is theálast working week foráthe State Duma before it adjourns foráits six-week summer break. Politicians are hurrying toáput theálast finishing touches onáPresident Vladimir Putinĺs policy ofátightening theáscrews onáthe opposition andánongovernmental organizations Ś aácampaign that has intensified significantly after Putin was inaugurated onáMay 7.
Last week, foráexample, United Russia members Alexander Khinshtein andáPavel Krasheninnikov introduced anáamendment that would make defamation aácriminal offense punishable byáa maximum fine ofá500,000 rubles ($15,200) or up toáfive years ináprison. Less than aáyear ago, then-President Dmitry Medvedev had removed this very article fromáthe Criminal Code, making defamation punishable byáa fine ofáonly 3,000 rubles ($90). This removal was part ofáMedvedevĺs efforts toáliberalize andáôhumanizeö some ofáthe more outrageous leftovers fromáthe Soviet period that remained ináthe code. But now, theáauthorities will have aávirtual carte blanche toáuse libel andáslander charges toáintimidate andáprosecute human rights activists, opposition figures andájournalists.
United Russia deputies, led byáthe partyĺs leader, Prime Minister Medvedev, are turning back theáclock andáreversing several ofáMedvedevĺs own reforms ofáthe Criminal Code. They plan toárenew theápersecution ofáprominent dissenters who dare toácriticize theáauthorities. Medvedev has remained silent onáthe subject, but it seems that nobody cares much about his opinion anymore.
Neither has Medvedev spoken out against theánew law onárallies that was passed ináearly June restricting theáconstitutional right ofáRussians toáprotest. This law includes punitive measures against those using theáInternet toáorganize protests. These repressive measures would have been unthinkable just aáyear ago, when Medvedev was president.
Another important feature ofáPutinĺs new regime is theáway it has formed aáclose political union between theáKremlin andáthe Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill, who was elected with active support fromáthe Kremlin, himself openly supports theáleadershipĺs authoritarian domestic policies.
One vivid example ofáthis holy union is theátrial against suspected members ofáthe Pussy Riot group, who were arrested andáhave been held inájail forámonths over what is essentially aáminor disorderly conduct offense. Theáaccused could face up toáseven years ináprison. Theáhasty, biased andáhighly politicized trial has been marked byánumerous procedural violations. Theáprosecutorsĺ indictment even cites violations ofáOrthodox Church rules andápractices, which is outrageous foráa country whose Article 14 ofáthe Constitution clearly states that theágovernment is secular. Ináthis sense, theátrial against Pussy Riot differs little fromáSharia courts ináthe North Caucasus.
Theánew regime has also opened yet another front onáits war against dissenters Ś against nongovernmental organizations. Since Russian businesses do not support NGOs because they fear government reprisals, andásince legislation does not encourage this form ofácharitable giving, nearly all funding foráRussian NGOs comes fromáabroad. Under such conditions, foreign funding is theáonly way that thousands ofáNGOs ináRussia can fulfill their function ofácharity, protecting andádefending fundamental human rights andábuilding aácivil society. They are theáonly organizations ináthe country that, among other things, monitor elections, protect theáenvironment, defend innocent political prisoners andáreveal cases ofácorruption andáother abuses byágovernment officials. It is no surprise that most top officials find these NGOs aáheavy nuisance, while some consider them aádirect threat toátheir livelihood.
Theánew bill, which will likely be passed this week before theáDuma recess, will deliver aácrushing blow toáNGOs. First, they will all be stigmatized as ôforeign agents,ö aáterm that is unquestionably synonymous with ôforeign spyö ináRussian. Theálegislation burdens NGOs that receive foreign funding with onerous reporting requirements andáinspections. This burden will prove unmanageable forámany NGOs, forcing them toáshut down operations ináRussia. Third, key personnel ináNGOs charged with failure toácomply with these rules could face severe fines ofáup toá3 million rubles ($91,000) or three years ináprison.
This is theámost ruthless attack theáauthorities have waged against NGOs ináthe 20 years since theácollapse ofáthe Soviet Union.
TheáDuma has set another disturbing precedent ináits crackdown against dissent. TheáKremlin has become more intolerant ofáthe few brave deputies who have been active ináthe protest movement against theáPutin regime, including Just Russia Deputies Dmitry Gudkov andáIlya Ponomaryov. Right now, theáauthorities are trying toáset aáprecedent byáfiling charges against aálow-level deputy, Vladimir Bessonov fromáthe Communist Party. Last week, theáDuma partially stripped Bessonovĺs immunity, clearing theáway forácriminal charges against him foráallegedly striking aápolice officer during aáDecember protest. This will be theáfirst time that aádeputy has been stripped ofáhis immunity andácharged as aáresult ofáhis political activities. Inátrue chekhist tradition, theáauthorities are starting with aáminor figure, Bessonov, toáset theástage forálikely criminal proceedings against theámost vocal leaders ofáthe opposition ináthe Duma, Gudkov andáPonomaryov, perhaps onátrumped-up charges that they have organized or incited ômass riots.ö
Amid this unprecedented crackdown, it is no surprise that theáprotest mood has remained strong, according toárecent polls byáthe Levada Center. Pouring fuel onáthe fire, theáauthorities raised utilities prices, tariffs andáexcise taxes onáJuly 1. Higher prices andáthe Kremlinĺs repressive measures against dissent will mean only one thing: anáeven sharper confrontation between theápeople andáthe Putin regime starting ináSeptember.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, aáState Duma deputy fromá1993 toá2007, hosts aápolitical talk show onáEkho Moskvy radio andáis aáco-founder ofáthe opposition Party ofáPeopleĺs Freedom.