Russia stretches 'extremism' laws

Newly beefed-up legislation enables the Kremlin to fight a rising wave of racism and other extremist views. But critics say it's being used to stifle political opposition.

Andrei Piontkovsky seems an unlikely extremist.

But the leading member of Russia's liberal Yabloko party is facing serious legal woes under recently toughened "anti-extremism" laws over two books he wrote about President Vladimir Putin's years in power. In June, the FSB security service in the southern region of Krasnodar threatened to shut down the local branch of Yabloko if it did not stop distributing the books, which are sharply critical of the Kremlin, and the case is likely to go to court in coming months.

"It is perfectly clear that the anti-extremism laws are not aimed at fighting terrorism, but against the political opposition," says Mr. Piontkovsky, an urbane former chief of a Moscow political think tank.

Piontkovsky is one of several liberal intellectuals to have been targeted in recent months under the laws, which pro-Kremlin analysts say are necessary to fight a rising wave of racism, ultranationalism, and pro-terrorist sentiment.

First passed five years ago, the legislation was beefed up for the second time last month, when Russia's top prosecutor reported a sixfold increase of extremist crimes over last year. Advocates of tougher laws say such statistics justify the new legislation, but critics say the laws hinge upon vague definitions of "extremism" and "assistance" to extremists – both designed to intimidate the Kremlin's political opponents and journalists.

"Anything can be termed extremism [under the law]," says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks extremist activities. "It's possible the authorities want to have this Damocles sword hanging over everyone's head. [If you engage in public activity,] you will understand that you can be arrested, if not this time, then next time."

The new amendments to the law, passed last month by the State Duma, come just as Russia readies for what could be a stormy political campaign season. Duma elections will be held in December, followed by presidential elections in March, when Mr. Putin's two-term constitutional mandate will expire.

141 'extremist' youth groups

The legislation now outlines 13 aspects of extremism, including such actions as "slandering an official of the Russian Federation" and inciting hatred against any "social group." (Last year, an outspoken advocate of Chechen separatism, Boris Stomakhin, was sentenced to five years for inciting hatred against the Russian Army.) It provides punishment for "financing" and "organizing" extremist activity as well as rendering "public support" for extremism.

Advocates of tougher laws point to recent studies, such as one published in the daily Noviye Izvestia last month, which ennumerated 141 youth groups "of an extremist nature" in Russia, with a total of half a million members. "Extremist youth groups exist in all major cities, their numbers are growing, and they are becoming more organized and politicized," the paper said.

"The enemies of Russia are attempting to use extremists as a trigger for explosive ethnic conflicts, designed to destabilize society and cause the disintegration of the country," says Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker of the Duma, from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. "We need to establish zero tolerance in our society for xenophobia, nationalism, and extremism in all its forms."

Russia's top prosecutor, Yury Chaika, said last month that "we have registered 150 extremist crimes in the first six months of this year," a sixfold increase over the same period last year. "The majority of criminal cases are related to public incitement to extremism and racial hatred," the independent Interfax agency quoted him as saying.

Politically biased application of law

But critics, pointing to recent applications of the law, say "extremism" is whatever the Kremlin decides it is. For example, Russia's Supreme Court this week upheld a ban on the National Bolshevik Party, which is led by novelist Eduard Limonov, on the grounds that its leftist ideology and occasionally violent street activism constitute "extremism." Yet some pro-Kremlin youth groups, such as Nashi, engage in very similar tactics.

"Organizations like Nashi, formally established for educational and cultural purposes, actually engage in political campaigns bordering on extremism and promoting xenophobia," according to a July 16 editorial in the independent daily Noviye Izvestia. "The only thing that saves them is their close relationship with the authorities."

Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, an independent think tank in Moscow, says that the broad interpretation of extremism has greatly strengthened the Kremlin's hand.

"The new amendments widen the concept of extremism so as to make it practically limitless," says Mr. Pribylovsky, who ran afoul of the law earlier this year when the FSB raided his home searching for "extremist content" and seized his personal papers and computer. It remains unclear what they were looking for, though Pribylovsky is co-writing a biography of Mr. Putin with US-based historian Yury Felshtinsky. He is also the author of a political website, www.anticompromat.ru, which was briefly forced to close down in March.

"Basically [the law] is a universal stick available to punish anyone, and the decision about how and when to use it is in the hands of the officials," says Pribylovsky.

Under the new amendments any crime can be classified as extremism if a political connotation can be shown. "If someone breaks a window, that's hooliganism under Russian law, and the culprit is liable to one year in prison," says Sergei Dickmann, a Moscow staff attorney with Jurists for Constitutional Rights and Freedoms, a nongovernmental organization. "But if you shout something against the authorities while breaking the window, that may now be called extremism and get you up to six years in prison."

The changes will make it a challenge for journalists to cover any political activities other than those sanctioned by the Kremlin, experts say. "It was difficult before, but now it becomes extremely difficult for journalists to do their job," says Mr. Dickmann.

For example, any speech deemed "extremist" that occurs during a broadcast can lead to a media outlet being warned, and then shut down, by authorities. "The practical outcome of this rule is that radio and TV stations will simply stop having live debate and talk shows," says Dickmann.

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