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Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Vladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin

Putin reloaded

This summer, both Duma and Kremlin have been busy implementing a whole array of new laws curtailing civil liberties. Vladimir Putin has taken full advantage of the first three months of his third presidency. A background article by Marion Messmer

One of these laws has targeted the previously untouched domain of the Internet in an attempt to address the recent protest movement that is mainly organized online. The new legislation could make the work of NGOs more challenging while another law has re-criminalized libel. Especially looking at the first two laws, is this a return to more Soviet practices?

Fearing color, going blind

These laws have one thing in common. They are all a response to the recent protest movement in Russia, the political awakening of the middle class. All three of them target the freedoms of expression, on the Internet as well as in real life. This consequently slows down the development of civil society. One important factor for a strong civil society in an emerging democracy like Russia is government support. The absence of mass public involvement in civil society makes it easy for an unwilling government not only not to support civil society measures, but rather to actively curtail civil society. Putin's new government can at best be described as "unwilling."

In 2006, in the aftermath of the color revolutions in Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004, Putin signed a piece of legislation that makes it very hard for especially foreign-funded NGOs to work in Russia. This is usually interpreted as a way for the Putin administration to control movements that would potentially lead to a color revolution in Russia similar to the ones in other post-communist countries. The law requires both Russian and foreign NGOs to report all planned activities to the Kremlin. Additionally, they could have been subjected to office foreclosures if officials want to check their activities in more detail. The base of the argument behind this law is that the Russian government will not tolerate American interventionism on its soil in the form of NGOs that promote Western-style democracy. In this summer's amendments, NGOs were targeted again. They can now be branded as a “foreign agent” if a majority of their funding comes from a foreign source.

Afraid of the power of the people

The term "foreign agent" itself is loaded with negative Soviet connotations. NGOs have renounced this amendment on the basis that it tarnishes their reputation. The influential Russian voting observation organization Golos stated that they would reject all foreign funding once the law goes into effect, but that they will continue their work regardless. Golos also said that they appear to be the main target of the law, having been involved in a power struggle with the Kremlin shortly before the December 2011 Duma elections.


Especially in new democracies, NGOs can do much in order to create a more positive attitude towards participatory democracy and civil society. Showing citizens that they, through participation, have the power to swerve the government's opinion on policy issues, is a very powerful way of reestablishing trust in democratic institutions. The Kremlin's intent is arguably to consolidate its power and lessen the perceived threat of a popular uprising. Though as a side effect, the tightened control law makes it very hard for NGOs to operate properly as the brandishing "foreign agent" might evoke negative associations among citizens. This is crucial because Russia needs a strong base of citizen engagement in order to become a strong democracy.

Observers of Russia have long been astounded at the high levels of freedom of access to the Internet; until this summer, there had hardly been any government control over it. With Putin's approval ratings further dropping and the opposition mostly organizing on the Internet, this threat has become too great for the Kremlin to further ignore. The Internet control law's proponents have said that the law is only targeted at combating child pornography, a claim that has empowered some United Russia politicians to call the law's critics "pedophiles."

In reality, however, the law allows for an arbitrary blockade of websites. As there is no strict definition of which types of websites can be blocked, the law's critics fear that it will severely restrict freedom of speech on the Internet and might lead to censorship.

The Internet strikes back

Prominent websites had launched an online awareness campaign in July, shortly before the bill was to be voted on. This campaign included a banner on Vkontakte saying, "The State Duma is considering a law to impose censorship on the Internet." When users clicked on the banner, they were redirected to Russia's Wikipedia page that had gone black and only read, "Imagine a world without free knowledge." It remains to be seen how this new law will impact Russian protestors' ability to organize this protest season.

These laws are a step backwards for Russian civil liberties. Russian and Western critics have compared the Internet control law with China's "Great firewall;" the first anti-NGO law already has negative implications for the Russian civil society. This new amendment will not help make NGOs more popular in the population. Though the question remains of how repressively Putin's third administration will use these laws.

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1st picture (source): RIA Novosti archive, image #830931 / Ruslan Krivobok / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Creative Commons License

2nd picture (source): Bogomolov.PL / Creative Commons License