Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Is the new Russia really the old Russia?

United Russia's reforms look more and more like changes aimed at making a rule of law impossible.

Liberties, logic suffer in Vladimir Putin’s Russia
Russian leaders have drastically ramped up their crackdown on freedom of expression in recent weeks, with an avalanche of restrictions on what people can do, wear, say, and where they can do it. The measures are in turns sinister, xenophobic, patently unenforceable, and absurd.

Many of the restrictions tighten the grip of Vladimir Putin…

Much of the new legislation is aimed at limiting dissent. For example, a bill toughening penalties for disorderly conduct — the routine and unchallengeable charge against anyone detained during a street protest — can mean a five-year sentence for anyone who has been arrested on that charge more than once.

But some of the rules would exert control in more subtle ways. A measure that would prohibit advertising on paid television… could force independent cable operators out of business.

Another bill parliament approved last week reflects the growing sense of mistrust of the Internet, which Putin recently described as a “CIA project.” It would require Russians to store personal data only on servers within Russia. As written, the legislation would seem to make it unlawful for Russians to make online purchases from companies based outside the country, which raises a fundamental problem with many of these new rules. They seem impossible to enforce…

“These laws lead to laughter,” said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

But within the arbitrary nature of the new rules lies their danger to civil society.

“Russia is not a law-governed state, so laws are a tool of intimidation rather than a legal instrument,” said Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based independent political analyst.

For example, a new law Putin signed last week that punishes retweets of material deemed “extremist” leaves open the question of who decides which tweets are extremist, and for that matter, what that word means. As a result, Lipman said, the law can be arbitrarily applied. The absence of independent courts and legislatures at any level give the accused almost no chance of acquittal…

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