Vienna, June 21 – Those concerned with the deteriorating state of Russia’s fragile democratic institutions under President Vladimir Putin yesterday gained an unusual and for many in that country and the West, totally unexpected ally: the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
By opposing proposals to broaden the definition of extremism and to impose harsher penalties on a variety of hate crimes, the FSB not only put itself at odds with every party in the Duma, except the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), but also with the Presidential administration where the amendments were drafted.
And that represents the first time ever during the Putin era that the country’s main security agency and a man who sprung from within its ranks to become Russian president are so clearly at odds. And that breach, even if it is papered over quickly, could profoundly affect future changes at the top of Russian politics.
On May 16, the Duma passed on first reading draft legislation that would broaden the definition of extremism and impose harsher punishments on those found guilty of engaging in it. Since that date, the Kremlin, the Duma and various public figures have proposed amendments to make the Russian law even more sweeping and draconian.
In the run-up to what is scheduled to be a June 27 vote on the second reading of this amended measure, Duma members this week have been discussing whether even this measure goes far enough or whether it goes so far as to open the door to a naked and ugly form of increasingly arbitrary authoritarianism.
As things stand now, the measure would lengthen the prison terms of those convicted of committing a crime on the basis of “ideological, political, racial, national or religious hatred.” It would expand the definition of extremism to include participating in mass disorders, hooliganism, or attacks on historical and cultural monuments.
Moreover, the amended law would narrow the Constitutional rights of those suspected of such crimes for the inviolability of their correspondence and telephone communications. It would apply to criticism of any group, including those defined solely in economic terms, such as the rich or the oligarchs, even if no action was then taken.
As a result, as Svetlana Samoylova pointed out in a commentary posted online today, the draft law were it to be adopted and implemented would allow the authorities to charge virtually anyone with extremism, thus effectively closing down any political life that did not enjoy the Kremlin’s imprimatur.
Most disturbing of all, she said, this legislation would transform the Russian Federation into “a country of extremists” (http://www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=4735), a country where no one who had any opinions different than those at the top could feel secure in his or her person.
Samoylova, as she herself acknowledged, and an article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” confirmed (http://www.ng.ru/politics/2007-06-21/1_fsb.html), was far from the only person to note the way in which such changes in the law would effectively make the rule of law impossible.
The most important of these dissenters was the leadership of the FSB. Sergei Kundel’chuk, who serves as the FSB’s representative to the Duma, said that his agency opposed the draft legislation because it lacks clear definitions and thus would be almost impossible to enforce. .
And he pointedly suggested that this measure could be counter-productive at best. After all, he asked rhetorically, if this measure is adopted as the Kremlin and many of the country’s leading parties want, “how will the international community and the human rights court react to that?”
At one level, of course, the FSB’s position is typical of police forces everywhere: They are typically far happier with laws that clearly define crimes in terms of specific actions that can be observed rather than in terms of the motivations of those committing them because it is far easier to enforce them.
But there may be another explanation beyond the hope that the FSB has changed its spots on human rights and political freedom. According to “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” unnamed sources told its journalists that the FSB has spoken out against this legislation less from principle than from spite.
The paper said that the FSB had worked with the Justice Ministry on amendments to the country’s anti-extremism legislation, but when their proposals went p to the Kremlin, the Presidential administration ignored them and the cautious reasoning that Kundel’chuk’s comments suggest were contained therein.
But even if that is all this unusual FSB comment is about, the Moscow newspaper concluded, it is significant as “the first case [in the recent history of Russia] when inter-agency cooperation has forced the law enforcement agency to recall about the democratic traditions of the international community.”