Russia takes aim at dissent, media criticism ... and high heels?

Russia's parliament has been in overdrive in recent weeks, working on legislation targeting free speech, women's heels, and the use of foreign words like 'hamburger.'

By , Correspondent

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    Participants in a high-heels race sprint in downtown Moscow in July 2012.
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"Rubber stamps gone wild!"

That is a loose translation of the jibe going around about Russia's hyperactive parliamentarians, who have been introducing new legislation faster than anyone can read it. Last week, before leaving on summer recess, the State Duma reportedly passed 60 new laws in just four hours.

Much of the new legislation zipping across Duma deputies' desks has been authored by the Kremlin and aims to extend and deepen a crackdown, begun shortly after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin two years ago. Russia has already passed laws to discourage dissent, limit Internet freedom, curb civil society, intimidate anyone who consorts with foreigners, and criminalize any public expression of gay identity.

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"It's all going in one direction, which is to tighten restrictions, toughen penalties, close any possible loopholes in previous laws," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a maverick Duma deputy. "It seemed to me that they already had enough tools to control everything. But they apparently feel the need for double and even triple insurance."

Cracking down on dissent...

In recent weeks the Duma has passed, and Mr. Putin has signed, a law that requires popular bloggers to register and submit their work for scrutiny to Roskomnadzor, the government's media watchdog. Another law, clearly influenced by events in next-door Ukraine, toughens criminal penalties for anyone deemed by authorities to be advocating "separatism" in the media or on the Internet. Yet another introduces criminal penalties (i.e. jail time) for anyone twice found guilty of violating rules of conduct at a public rally.

One law passed by the Duma last week will require all Internet companies that collect personal data from Russian users to store that information on servers located on Russian territory. The law is slated to come into effect on Sept. 1. Russians may no longer be able to book airline tickets or hotel reservations online, make money transfers or use anything involving "cloud" technology, since foreign databases to crucial to everyday transactions, critics warn.

"There has been an abominable drop in the quality of legislative acts," says Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst. "Very rarely is there anything resembling reasonable debate. Initiatives tend to get rushed through the Duma in short order. Objections, or arguments against the measures, seldom get a hearing."

Experts say that some new laws that appear utterly incomprehensible at first glance actually do have underlying logic. One such is a measure, passed last week, that bans advertising on cable and satellite TV channels. Mr. Ponomaryov, who is in trouble with the leaders of his fair Russia Party for having been the only lawmaker to vote against the recent annexation of Crimea, says that most deputies opposed the bill, until the Kremlin insisted on it.

He adds that the sponsors of the bill were big advertising monopolies associated with the state-run TV networks, who want to eliminate pesky new competitors. The Kremlin agreed with the move, he says, because the law will effectively drive small independent cable stations out of existence – along with their occasional political challenges.

"The Duma's work this year will definitely go down in history," says Pavel Kudyukin, associate professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The sheer number of new laws is totally unprecedented. Of course, quality is another story."

... and high heels?

Indeed, some of the frenzied lawmaking appears to be veering into sheer nuttiness. For example, pro-Kremlin deputy Oleg Mikheyev has floated a proposal that would prohibit Russian women from wearing high heels or canvas sneakers. His logic: "The harmful effects of wearing extremely high heels and flat shoes have now been recognized by experts of the entire world. It's necessary to change this trend." Mr. Mikheyev's initiative follows the banning of synthetic lace underwear, as of July 1, by the Russian-led Customs Union.

Russian parliamentarians have already passed a law prohibiting any use of profanity in works of journalism, cinema, theater, or music. At least one popular Russian punk group, Leningrad, has smirkingly found a way around that – by replacing the prohibited obscenities with perfectly good dictionary words that mean the same thing. A related bill wending its way through the Duma seeks to ban foreign words such as "futbol" and "hamburger" from media and the arts.

Another Duma deputy, Roman Khudyakov, recently noticed that Russia's 100-rouble bill contains a picture of the iconic statue that tops Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, of a naked – and slightly exposed – Apollo driving a chariot. Mr. Kudyakov is urgently demanding that the Central Bank withdraw the notes from circulation in order to "protect children" from the image.

Ponomaryov says that while the Kremlin is purposefully directing the legislative surge, ambitious deputies are turning it into a chaotic flood.  

"This idiocy that is happening is because many deputies see that the way you get noticed is to propose a law," he says. "Of course everyone knows that the legislative fashion is strictly for more restrictions. You need to sponsor a law that bans something, shuts something down. That's what gets rewarded."

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