Russia's new treason statute, anti-NGO and other repressive laws: 'sovereign democracy' or renewed autocracy?

Author:Pitts, Chip
Position:Nongovernment organizations - Introduction through II. Development of Russian Treason Law C. Treason Laws in Post-Soviet Russia, p. 83-114
  1. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW A. International Factors B. Domestic Factors II. DEVELOPMENT OF RUSSIAN TREASON LAW A. Treason Laws in the Russian Empire B. Treason Laws in the USSR C. Treason Laws in Post-Soviet Russia D. New Version of the Treason Statute III. OTHER LAWS AGAINST CIVIL SOCIETY AND FREEDOMS A. NGO, i.e., 'Foreign Agents" Law B. Part of a Global Anti-NGO Trend C. The "Dima Yakovlev Law" D. Other Recent Restrictions on Political Freedoms IV. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW

    Treason is the only crime referenced in the Constitutions of most countries. Treason statutes aim to protect the security of the people and preserve the integrity of the state. Invoked especially in times of war or other crises, treason laws can be both a powerful mechanism to punish betrayal, and a dangerous path to penalize political dissent.

    In 2012 the Russian Duma (the lower house of Parliament) amended the treason statute with several significant revisions that can seriously impede civil society and complicate the lives of ordinary citizens. (1) Both international and domestic developments preceded the revision. The international community witnessed a global wave of political uprisings, including the Color Revolutions in the former Soviet republics, and worldwide opposition movements manifested in the "Occupy" movements and the so-called "Arab Spring." In addition, the post-9/11 world has seen a drastic weakening of the Rule of Law through the actions of the major democracies, including the United States of America, as new laws such as the USA Patriot Act (2) and analogous security laws around the world (3) have resulted in enhanced state surveillance, (4) indefinite detention, (5) and even extrajudicial killing without due process (6) of allegedly treasonous citizens as well as foreigners, while the scope for legitimate dissent has been diminished. (7)

    Within Russia's domestic polity, however, the Russian middle class has become more active--stepping up protest activity. (8) It has thus shown itself somewhat more able and interested in mobilizing against the deeply rooted and widely acknowledged paternalistic and authoritarian traditions of Russia. (9) Meanwhile, President Putin has reinforced his regime through the illiberal means of "managed" or "Sovereign Democracy," which favors the sovereign state over self-government by an empowered people. (10) This less authentic approach to democracy had been slightly interrupted by the liberal policy of Putin's temporarily designated successor Dmitry Medvedev, but with Putin back at the helm, it now appears to have returned in full force.

    This article aims to demonstrate that there has been a degradation of democracy, civil rights, and the Rule of Law from the beginning of Putin's third term. We will give particular attention to the new treason law as an illustrative exemplification of the other regressive trends also mentioned. Overall, the human rights situation in Russia not only parallels the continued global trends by governments to take restrictive steps against potential political protest and revolt following the so-called "Arab Spring" and Color Revolutions, but goes further--evidencing what appears to be President Putin's agenda to return Russia to an authoritarian state. Parts II and III address the most extreme recently passed laws infringing on political freedoms: the treason law, foreign-agents law, and the "Dima Yakovlev Law." They demonstrate steps taken by the government to punish political dissent and restrict contact with foreigners on personal, organizational, and national levels. In the course of describing these laws, we also note the existence and elaborate on the likely impact of other recently passed laws that violate the freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and expression in Russia.

    1. International Factors

      The Color Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, along with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, and NATO expansion eastward in seeming violation of earlier promises made to Russia, (11) contributed to Russian paranoia that the West supported regime change and the division of Russia into small ethnic republics. (12) Russia's authorities thus perceived a need to amend legislation to discourage foreign intervention. Foundations and financing from the United States and the West, such as financing from the Open Society Foundation, admittedly played a role in promoting democracy in the Color Revolutions and in former Soviet satellites, (13) so there is some understandable and long-standing concern by regional autocrats that exposure to foreign ideas and influence will lead to enhanced freedoms. It is no coincidence that in repressive regimes, such as Iran and Syria, local protesters are frequently equated with foreigners, treasonous actors, or terrorists; the truth, however, is that local citizens usually display extraordinary courage to peacefully assert their universal human rights, and to seek recognition of those rights and an environment of enhanced dignity, fair participation, and justice.

      For its own part, Moscow intervened to promote its policies and interests in Ossetia and Ukraine, (14) with Kremlin advisors supporting the successful 2010 campaign of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who succeeded the Orange Revolution hero Viktor Yushchenko and adopted Putinesque policies against civil liberties. (15) Demonstrations in Kiev were scrupulously monitored by the Kremlin even before Russia's 2014 military incursion into Ukraine (replete with apparent war crimes) and the annexation of Crimea following a referendum in the majority ethnic-Russian Ukrainian province. (16) Aware of the potential for a Color Revolution in Russia itself, the Kremlin adjusted its regional foreign policy with the goal of "limiting the infiltration of Western influence in the region [the Commonwealth of Independent States], and... the expansion of NATO membership." (17) In March 2013, after calculating possible consequences to Russian stability, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the U.S. announcement of 60 million USD in humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition by saying that it would merely encourage further uprisings and instability among states. (18)

      After twenty years of independence and two Chechen wars, Russia is still struggling with separatist movements across its regions. Several ethnic republics--mostly from the Caucasus region--are known to have independence movements. (19) Russia's recent strong reaction prohibiting a Siberian independence march and threatening to ban the British Broadcasting Corporation for its coverage of the movement is only the latest reminder of Moscow's sensitivity to its own territorial integrity. (20) Putin frequently reiterates his stance that the territorial integrity of Russia must be maintained. Unsurprisingly, in November 2013 one of the working groups in the Russian Duma heeded the President's concern and introduced a bill to penalize separatist propaganda with up to twenty years in prison. (21)

      Although substantive--as opposed to merely procedural or formalistic--notions of the Rule of Law recognize that it must be imbued with both structural and rights-based protections, namely those that stem from designated constitutional rights, and checks and balances among different branches and levels of government, (22) the post-9/11 moves of the United States and other major Western democracies toward a less balanced system favoring executive power did not set a good example for Russia's emerging Rule of Law and democracy. Justification of intrusive surveillance, repression of free speech, (23) and other abuses such as kidnapping and torture (24) by John Yoo and other lawyers working for the George W. Bush administration gave apparent license to autocrats everywhere to use such methods against their own alleged national security threats, including designated "terrorists" and perpetuators of "treason" (even if those actors had...

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