Insults to Putin come with a fine. But is the cost to the Kremlin greater?

Why We Wrote This

Banning the slander of government officials to silence criticism is a common tactic, especially in authoritarian nations. But as Russia is finding, such bans can prove more trouble than they’re worth.

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Photo/AP
In this undated photo released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin rests on a hill in Siberia during a hike ahead of his Oct. 7 birthday.

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Six months ago, the Russian government enacted a law criminalizing online displays of disrespect toward Russia’s state symbols, institutions, and leaders. Now, the cost of insulting President Vladimir Putin has become clear: about $470, judging by the 45 cases that have been filed. But is the law really deterring criticism of the government?

Kirill Poputnikov, who was fined after taking a picture of insulting graffiti and posting it on Facebook, says no. “I think this just makes peoples’ attitude toward the authorities become worse,” he says. “How can anyone make you respect him through force?”

Masha Lipman, editor of Russian affairs journal Point & Counterpoint, says that the law’s creation and application are probably not a Kremlin project. “I don’t think this is the work of Putin personally. Not every piece of legislation is about him,” she says. But “if you are a judge and you are looking at this kind of case where a defendant is charged with disrespecting Putin, it would take special courage to say there is no case here. That would be bucking the trend, and would get you noticed for your nonconformism.”

Kirill Poputnikov was upset by what he saw.

Somebody had spray-painted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name, followed by a vile Russian obscenity, across the stately columns of the police headquarters in his hometown of Yaroslavl. Mr. Poputnikov, an architect by profession, snapped a picture and later posted it on his Facebook page to start a discussion among his friends.

The events that followed his posting last March illustrate the bizarre applications of new legislation intended to punish egregious online displays of disrespect toward Russia’s state symbols, institutions, and leaders.

Mr. Poputnikov was charged and convicted of slandering the president – one of the first to run afoul of the law. Over the past six months, 45 cases have been opened, and of those that resulted in fines, the average penalty has been $470. But punishment can rise as high as a $1,500 fine or 15 days in prison.

Mr. Poputnikov appealed, protesting that his intent was not to offend but merely to report on a public occurrence. But last month the appeals court judge slapped him down, ruling that “Poputnikov was aware that he was spreading negative information about Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Oddly enough, nobody has ever ordered him to take down the supposedly incendiary post, and it can be found on his Facebook page to this day.

The experience has deeply affected Mr. Poputnikov, and he has begun taking an intense interest in the way Russian courts treat people like himself.

“The trial was really weird. From the very beginning it was clear how it was going to turn out,” he says. “No evidence was presented, no experts testified, nor were my arguments that I never intended to insult anybody taken into account. It was clear that it was necessary to punish me.”

He says he has received hundreds of messages of support, and only one that criticized him for posting the picture.

“I think this just makes peoples’ attitude toward the authorities become worse,” he says. “How can anyone make you respect him through force?”

“Counterproductive for the authorities”

That raises some important questions, at a time when Russian opinion polls show that trust in the authorities is in decline, about how public confidence and civil discourse are to be established and maintained.

Some experts argue that the law is part of a general offensive by a frightened Kremlin against all open political expression, and particularly aimed at nipping any kind of organized opposition in the bud. Others suggest that this, and other laws, are ham-handed attempts by pro-Kremlin lawmakers to churn out legislation they think the authorities want, but which backfires and creates embarrassments instead.

The law against disrespecting authorities is just the latest in a suite of legislation in recent years whose stated aims are to crack down on “extremism,” limit “fake news,” and prevent foreign meddling in Russian cyberspace. The lawmakers who framed the legislation argue that they are tackling the same kinds of challenges that Western societies are facing, and using similar tools to do so.

The main author of the law on respecting authorities, Senator Andrei Klishas, insists that it does not limit legitimate criticism, but imposes punishments only for those who express themselves using obscenities or mockery and other forms of gross disrespect. “That is, you do not just use some kind of expression, you consciously use it in order to harm [the official’s] reputation or insult him. The judge will determine its presence, it has always been like this in all countries,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “When communicating with authorities, you need to show respect, because they did not appear out of nowhere, they are the result of people’s choice.”

Of the 45 cases so far launched, 26 involved insults directed at Mr. Putin. The rest concerned local governors, the United Russia party, and security officials, according to a report issued last week by the human rights group Agora.

“I don’t think this is the work of Putin personally. Not every piece of legislation is about him,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Point & Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University. “The government has become much more repressive since [Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin in] 2012, and has been increasingly intolerant toward political opposition and criticisms that go beyond words. But now we see that it’s words too. The longer this trend persists, the more it expands.”

About three times more people are arrested for online offenses than offline ones, say experts.

“The internet has become a dangerous place for citizens to express themselves,” says Sarkis Darinyan, chief legal officer for Roskomsvoboda, a nongovernmental organization that fights for a free internet.

“Of course these laws have a chilling impact, and will increase the tendency for people to censor themselves. But in the longer run, it has the effect of making many people more tech-savvy, find ways to preserve their anonymity, encrypt their data, and protect themselves. It fuels the dark web. It drives people to seek more information, and therefore it is counterproductive for the authorities because it increases opposition.”

Punishing the provinces?

Many of the cases, such as Mr. Poputnikov’s, have occurred out in Russia’s provinces where local police and judges may be just trying to create the impression that they are hard at work defending the state, says Ms. Lipman.

“For local police, extremism is easiest to find online. You don’t even have to leave your office,” she says. “This has generated a trend of looking for perpetrators on the web rather than on the ground.”

The courts rarely make an effort to see things the defendant’s way – as Mr. Poputnikov learned the hard way – because they are fully under the sway of authorities, she adds.

“If you are a judge and you are looking at this kind of case where a defendant is charged with disrespecting Putin, it would take special courage to say there is no case here. That would be bucking the trend, and would get you noticed for your nonconformism. That is very rare in Russia,” she says.

Some analysts point to the fact that the number of new cases under the disrespect law have been tapering off, after spiking at 14 in June, to suggest that authorities may be recognizing that prosecuting people for their Facebook postings may bring counterproductive results.

“The reaction in the mass media to some of these cases was quite intense, so it is likely that the Moscow government decided to tamp down the zeal of prosecutors in the provinces, leading to a reduction in the number of cases,” says Anton Gorodetsky, a Moscow legal expert. “The authorities probably hadn’t been expecting there would be so many cases in the regions, sometimes based on rather excessive interpretations of the law.

“It would be good to recognize that, in the 21st century, it is rather pointless to try and control the vectors of political and social debate by means of such laws, since the main consequence of it is public irritation.”

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