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Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych

Viktor Fedorovych YanukovychYanukovych

A hot summer in the State Duma

Since the beginning of this summer, the State Duma has passed a series of laws at lightning speed in regards to Internet access, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and libel. Behind these laws, they reflect the current administration under Putin and its relationship to the Russian elite and citizens. An analysis by Roy Yu

The average daily temperature in Moscow in July would be around 18 to 25 degrees Celsius. With such a moderate temperature, this is the time of the year where everything slows down somewhat. The rich Russians, usually the political elites and oligarchs, would go on a vacation in the Black Sea or the Mediterranean Sea, and the not-so-rich Russians would travel within Russia or the near abroad. However, this was not the case this year, at least not in the political scene.

A Hot Summer for the Lawmakers

Between early June and mid-July, in the very short period of time of roughly 45 days, the State Duma has passed three important bills that entail stricter regulations of Internet access, new regulations in regards to NGOs, and reintroduction of criminal libel. It is obvious that, even without examining them further, all of the three laws are targeted towards the current rising opposition in Russia. Simply put, the Kremlin, under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, wishes to stifle the opposition and thus, strengthen Putin’s grip on power.

Lawmakers, most of whom were elected during the contested legislative election in December 2011, clearly want to quickly get these controversial bills that are backed by Kremlin off their back before the actual summer recess hits. Maybe their real deadline is not the summer but the upcoming local elections across Russia in October.

Three laws, one purpose


What is similar among all three laws is that, essentially, they are serving more or less the same purposes: tightening the screws that were loosened during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency and laying legal groundwork for Putin’s authoritarianism.

The first law that is making its way through the State Duma is regarding stricter regulations of Internet access in Russia. This law would potentially establish a government blacklist of websites that contain “illegal” content and would require Internet service providers and search engines to block them. The officials claim that this law strictly targets combating child pornography on the Internet. The opponents, however, have claimed the contrary, in that this law would to suppress opposition activities online and would, thus, constitute active censorship.

Concerning NGOs, the second law aims to put new restrictions on the country’s NGOs by branding some of them as “foreign agents”. “Foreign agents” are essentially NGOs operating in Russia who mainly receive funding from abroad or from non-Russian citizens. The law is planning to put more bureaucratic burdens onto these NGOs. Seemingly the law appears to be harmful, the fact, however, is that it will affect a wide range of NGOs, as the new bill will hurt, to name a few, cancer care, environment, and business. For example, the 2014 Sochi Olympic organization team would be classified as a “foreign agent.” That being said, the most threatening consequence is that this new bill will hurt political NGOs the most, since they are the ones who support Russian civil movement along with foreign support. Smearing the Russian civil society like this, clearly, there will be grave consequences.

As one of the small successes in former President Medvedev’s semi-liberalization, people in Russia were wholeheartedly applauding for the decriminalization of libel only seven months ago. In this July, however, the State Duma re-criminalized libel, yet another serious hit to the freedoms of expression, of assembly, and of association in the country. Although the new law does not impose a prison sentence in case of violation, harsh financial penalties will be imposed. An individual can be fined up to five million rubles, roughly 153,000 US dollar or 126,500 euro, if he is found guilty of accusing someone of a serious crime. In short, this new libel further hinders the freedom of expression. Furthermore, there are also financial penalties against people for taking part of unapproved demonstrations.

Growing opposition


Quickly looking back, opposition in Russian has grown relatively fast and has become more outspoken over the past half-year period, notably since December 2011 after the Russian legislative election. The suspected electoral misconducts and fraud during this election were the initial catalysts that made the protestors take everything onto the street. Since then, this wave of more open and noisy, in the eyes of the Kremlin, demonstrations has never stopped and, on the contrary, has gained more momentum as times goes by.

As political analyst Kirill Rogov points out in Vedomosti, despite the protest after the presidential election, a clear majority of Russians now accept Putin as the country’s leader. It is also important to note, however, that there is an equally clear majority that, along with a decent group of the elite, does not want him to rule the way he used to do during his first two mandates as President. Instead, they want to see a more liberal and less authoritarian presidency.

Rogov notes that Putin’s ratio of approval and disapproval is roughly 65 to 35 percent. Although an excellent result in the eyes of Western democracies, this is not accepted for “the Tsar” Putin who wishes to govern Russia in an authoritarian matter. This time around, Putin clearly does not have the support of the Russian people, notably of the elites like he did before. However, with the current three laws passing through the State Duma in lightning speed, clearly, Putin is acting as if he has the support he wants. It is this discrepancy that is the root of his unfolding and looming political crisis. Yet, like Rogov points out, it has not reached its acute phase.

Local elections in October

Perhaps it is no surprise that these three laws had been passed through the Duma so quickly. After the unsatisfactory results in the December 2011 and March 2012 elections and the protests that followed immediately, the Kremlin does not want to lose their grip on power. It wishes to regain its power by using the upcoming local elections in October. The gap between Putin and the elite as well as the society is widening day by day. His three newly introduced hardline policies that wish to wipe these rebellious ones back in shape may well have an adverse affect that Putin is not ready and not willing to deal with: a more angry and outspoken opposition

These upcoming elections would put Putin’s party, United Russia, to a great test. As Rogov points out, United Russia is slowly declining in its popularity since Putin’s takeover. The ruling party United Russia was often compared to the Communist Party during the Soviet era until not long ago. However, as polling indicates, its popularity is less than 40 percent in 32 regions and less than 35 percent in 16 regions. In Moscow, a more striking number: below 30 percent.

Following the trend of a series of contested and manipulated elections in Russia, electoral fraud would most likely plague the upcoming elections in October. Not only would these elections further expose Putin’s and United Russia’s unpopularity, the potential protests over elections results would escalate the matter further and, along with the spilt among the elites, an outright political crisis could take place in Russia in October.

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1st picture (source): sime simon / Creative Commons License

2nd picture (source): Арсений Габдуллин / Permission to use the picture for any purpose

3rd picture (source): Dmitry Rozhkov / Creative Commons License