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Russia's decriminalization of domestic abuse: a sign of conservatives' influence?

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Women's rights advocates say move leaves women underprotected from abusive spouses. But it also signals the growing political clout of the Russian Orthodox Church and other conservative political actors.

Russian lawmaker Olga Batalina, at the podium, addresses the State Duma in Moscow. The State Duma voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to eliminate criminal liability for battery on family members that does not cause bodily harm. The bill that makes battery on a family member punishable by a fine or a 15-day day arrest is expected to be approved on Friday.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP | Caption

Less than a year after a baby step forward to protect women from domestic violence, Russia is taking a bigger step backward.

That's the view of women's rights advocates after the conservative-dominated State Duma, the lower house of parliament, overwhelmingly approved legislation that effectively decriminalizes "first offense" domestic violence, which is virtually certain to be adopted in its final reading Friday.

The legal changes have been accompanied by ferocious public debate and street protests – which itself reflects a shift in Russian social awareness of an issue that's long been in the shadows. But the outcome does appear to confirm the political ascendancy of social conservatives since the pro-Kremlin United Russia party won a crushing victory in last September's State Duma elections.

On display is the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is pushing a strong traditionalist agenda. The church was actively behind a recent law banning the "propaganda of sexual minorities," aimed at Russia's beleaguered LGBT community. The Kremlin, while perhaps not the main driving force of the conservative wave, has clearly acquiesced to it and President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the new law.

"Although priests do not play a politically active role, we see the positions of the Orthodox Church gradually attaining official status" as the church attempts to regain its czarist-era place as ideological bulwark of the state, says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "This suits the Kremlin, which constantly criticizes the West for abandoning its traditional principles while Russia is supposedly a bastion of good old family values. The international dimension isn't the main reason for the upsurge of social conservatism in Russia, but it's definitely there."

'Very discouraging for women'

The new legislation basically turns the clock back to the situation that had long existed in Russia – domestic violence was singled out for special treatment only last summer, by making violence among family members that does not result in serious physical injury subject to criminal prosecution. Unlike many Western countries, Russia does not have separate legislation covering domestic abuse, and it is therefore treated in the same light as other types of violence.

Proponents of the new law argue that they are merely streamlining the legislation to make, say, a slap a wife might receive from her husband punishable on the same terms as a similar slap she might endure from a stranger in the street, without any special consideration of family circumstances.

It's not a draconian change, but it's one that reveals a stark social divide in understanding of the nature of domestic violence and how it should be officially treated. Now, instead of criminal prosecution, a first time offender who does not cause serious bodily harm will be subject only to a fine of up to $500.

Proponents of the law insist it's about curbing state interference in family affairs, allowing husbands and wives work out their differences in private, and parents to get on with the job of bringing up their children. Critics say that equating domestic violence with the public kind fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of family abuse, and once again leaves women virtually defenseless in their homes.

The legal regime brought in last summer would have required police to investigate complaints of abuse, and prosecutions would have been carried out by the state. "Now, once again, the victim will be required to defend herself," says Andrei Sinelnikov, deputy director of ANNA, the Center for Prevention of Violence, which runs a nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. "She will, effectively, have to prosecute her tormentor on her own, fill out all the paperwork, gather the witnesses, see the process through."

"The previous system, which is now to be restored, was very discouraging for women. Our statistics show that more than 70 percent of victims never lodged complaints," he adds. "The psychological impact of this new law will be to signal that domestic abuse is not a serious issue, and inevitably will give perpetrators a greater sense of impunity."

Inviting victims' silence?

Official statistics suggest that about 40 percent of all violent crimes in Russia take place in a family setting, and the ANNA Center estimates that 80 percent of violence against women is committed by spouses or boyfriends.

At the same time, polls show that social awareness of the problem is rising. In a survey last September by the state-funded VTsIOM agency, 77 percent of respondents said they are sure that many cases of domestic violence go unrecorded, and almost half doubted that victims receive adequate official assistance or support.

The law's supporters argue that it's ridiculous to put home violence on a different level than the sort that happens on the street. After all, sometimes children must be disciplined, and people living at close quarters occasionally lose their tempers, they say.

"This is an anti-family principle, when a mother is regarded as more dangerous to her own child than some stranger," says Duma deputy Olga Batalina, one of the new law's authors. "This is just about restoring justice to families. The law still provides for repeat actions to be criminally prosecuted."

But amid the current atmosphere of burgeoning social conservatism, advocates for women's rights fear that progress toward addressing the distinct problem of domestic violence has been set back years in Russia, and that worse things might be on the horizon.

"Now the state says, 'we just won't interfere until something awful happens,' and the victims are left without any legal protection," says Mari Davtyan, a lawyer with the ANNA center. "Now if there is a drastic rise in domestic violence we won't even know about it, because police won't be inclined to investigate and cases won't even be recorded."