As elections loom, Kremlin applies 'ethical standards' to muzzle critics

In September, Russian voters will be able to directly elect some of their representatives to the national legislature – potentially allowing reformers to gain national office. Authorities are looking to stop that.

Kursk legislator Olga Li issues an open appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which she claims state institutions were being run like 'criminal enterprises,' blames the Kremlin for being 'indifferent to the fate of millions' of increasingly impoverished citizens, and questions the annexation of Crimea.

Since she was elected to the parliament of the Russian region of Kursk five years ago, Olga Li has been a major challenge to local authorities.

Among other things, she has been instrumental in bringing charges of corruption against several leading local officials. She has publicly spoken out on dwindling economic opportunities in the important industrial region. The newspaper where she serves as editor, Narodni Zhurnalist, keeps up a steady drumbeat of criticism, and she seems able to bring hundreds of supporters onto the streets to support her political campaigning.

Ms. Li even issued a widely viewed YouTube appeal to President Vladimir Putin, in which she claimed state institutions were being run like "criminal enterprises," blamed the Kremlin for being "indifferent to the fate of millions" of increasingly impoverished citizens, and questioned the annexation of Crimea.

She insists that her constituents elected her to do just that. And she hopes they will elect her to the State Duma in Moscow, Russia's national legislature, as an independent in upcoming September elections – a path open to her thanks to reforms made in the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections.

"As a local deputy my possibilities are quite limited," she told the Monitor in a telephone interview. "As a Duma deputy, I'd have a lot more chances to influence things."

But local and Kremlin powerbrokers look like they're trying to prevent that by using new "ethical standards" for elected officials. Across the county local legislatures are tightening "ethical codes" designed to curb the speech of elected representatives and candidates for office, and to make any "rude criticism" of authority a punishable offense. And Li's case is just the tip of the iceberg.

"I have been accused of 'undermining the foundations of the state,' just for raising some blunt questions," Li says. "There is a clear attempt to pressure me to stop criticizing authorities. But I will not be silent. I strongly believe that there should be a framework of political discourse in which such criticism is acceptable. Otherwise, why say anything at all?"

An uncertain election

For much of the Putin era, the composition of the Duma was determined solely by big national political parties, whose bosses selected and carefully controlled their candidate lists. Deputies were allotted to the Duma according to the  proportion of the nationwide vote each party received. But following mass demonstrations against electoral fraud five years ago, then-President Dmitry Medvedev introduced a package of reforms aimed at assuaging Russia's restive middle class, including one that stipulated half of the Duma would henceforth be chosen in local, first-past-the-post constituency races.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Russia's economy was bubbling along nicely. Most of Russian society did not join the protest movement. Regional elites appeared totally under the Kremlin's thumb, and the risk that a few stubborn critics might get elected in some far-flung constituencies looked like a small price to pay.

"Now we have economic crisis, the pie is shrinking, and the Kremlin is not as sure as it was that local elites can be controlled," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The old system was pretty good at ensuring certain types didn't get into the Duma. The new system is still a work in progress, and elections are just months away. It's not clear what kinds of new people might get elected in local constituencies. So, there is an effort to plug holes."

The primaries of the ruling party, United Russia, are coming up in May. Mr. Petrov says party leaders are trying to get every candidate to swear an oath to support whoever wins the nomination in each constituency. "It's not going well," he says. "There is every indication that many losers will break away to run as independents, or support other parties. There is a bit of uncertainty about it all."

Hence the emphasis on passing tougher "ethical codes" to at least put limits to what elected deputies and candidates might say, especially about Mr. Putin and the central authorities.

Advocates of the crackdown say it's all about keeping elections civil and preventing the kind of "black PR" that often surfaces in Russian elections. Some even point to the low-ball antics of the US presidential race, which have been widely covered on Russian TV, as a good reason to lay down some tough rules for discourse.

But critics say it's really about installing some harsh filters on local levels to keep critics like Li from seeking national office.

'We're not going to disappear'

Kursk lawmakers have censured Li for overstepping the bounds of acceptable speech in several recent appearances. And last week the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation against Li, citing an old case in which she allegedly slandered a local judge. That means she's now on Moscow's radar as a problem, experts say, and will likely be burdened with criminal charges and prevented from fulfilling her plan to run in September.

Igor Zorya, the head of the Kursk "ethics committee" that censured Li, declined to talk with the Monitor on grounds that he was too busy with his own re-election campaign. But another local legislature that has passed similar new rules, in the city of Kostroma, sent a written statement.

"A deputy is a public figure who represents voters' interests, and thus he should have an impeccable reputation. He is responsible for his words under existing laws. That is why he has no right to distribute information that might harm the business reputation of the organs of public power. He may not use rude or insulting expressions of speech that are harmful to the honor and dignity of other people, or allow himself baseless accusations against someone, use deliberately false information or appeal for illegal actions," it says.

If applied to Li's case, it would seem apparent that she is guilty of colorful language decrying corruption, naming names, and calling into question the wisdom of central authority.

Russia's oldest liberal party, Yabloko, has seen several of its local lawmakers censured or deprived of deputy status for breaking such rules over the past few months. Nevertheless, Alexander Gnezdilov, the party's deputy chairman, insists that Yabloko will attempt to participate in both local and national elections this September, and make use of every opportunity that is available.

"Of course there are few grounds for optimism, but that doesn't mean we should give up," he says. "For us, political activity has sense as long as we want to go on living in this country. So, not stepping aside is our way of saying we're not going to disappear."

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