Saturday, December 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin Government Taking Russia Back to Totalitarianism, Rights Activists Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 20 – The Russian government’s proposal to broaden the definition of treason and espionage so that the authorities could accuse almost anyone of those crimes would put Russia on the road back to the totalitarian past and create the risk of a new 1937, according to a declaration issued by some of that country’s leading human rights activists.
Consequently, they appealed on Thursday to members of the Duma to reject this proposal from the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and to President Dmitry Medvedev to reject it should the country’s legislature, which is dominated by Putin’s United Russia Party, pass it anyway (
Having recently eliminated the right of trial by jury for crimes against the state, the appeal continues, the decision to loosen the definitions of treason and espionage is “very dangerous” and entails “far-reaching consequences” that threaten to return “justice [in Russia] to the norms of the 1920s to 1950s.”
During that period, the appeal notes, any “independent assessment of the situation in the country and of particular spheres of life, not to speak about criticism of the regime and unsanctioned communication with foreigners was defined [by the Communist Party authorities] as treason to the motherland.”
“The establishment of contemporary democratic norms of law has taken place precisely when the authorities make a sharp distinction between conscious service to an armed enemy of the state and statements against the government and the existing system,” a distinction the proposed legislation obliterates.
Only in ancient and medieval political systems “did rulers unite in one definition of treason statements against the powers that be and a going over to the side of the enemy,” and consequently, the Putin government’s proposal, if adopted, “means a return to the darkest totalitarian methods of struggle with those who think differently.”
And even if it takes a certain amount of time for that to happen – and its failure to happen almost certainly will lead some defenders of the regime inside Russia and abroad to deny that it is a threat – the appeal warns that the decision of the Russian government to broaden the definition of “extremism” led to a dramatic increase in “the number of racist crimes.”
But the Putin government proposal goes even further: it equates not only “opposition activities but even simply communicating about what is going on in the country” with “service to enemy powers,” and because the law does not define any of this carefully, the dangers that it will be used expansively are all too real.
“Eighty-two years ago, the leaders of bolshevism equated their intra-party competitors to ‘enemies of the people,’ having declared any disagreement a serious political crime. With this began the Great Terror, which carried off many millions of lives o four fellow citizens, including almost all the initiators of the infamous Paragraph 58 of the Criminal Code.”
“And a few years later,” the appeal notes, “an analogous law was adopted in [Hitler’s] Third Reich.”
Now, “a half century later,” the appeal continues, a Russian government that claims to be democratic and has even been described as such by other states is restoring “these terrible formulations “as an almost complete repetition of the old ones which were created for the carrying out of totalitarian purges.”
“The only distinctions are that the authors of this draft bill have not yet decided to extend criminal responsibility to relatives [as Lenin and Stalin did] and membership in the Council of Europe very much interferes with the establishment of the death penalty” for these crimes as well as for any others.
The signatories of the appeal remind the Duma deputies and those elsewhere in pro-government ranks that they “are putting themselves at risk” of falling under the punitive arrangements they would be putting it place much as the Old Bolsheviks did when they backed extraordinary measures at the start of the Soviet period.
“We call on deputies who feel a responsibility for the future of Russia to reject this bill and the President of the Russian Federation in his capacity as the guarantor of the rights and freedoms [of the citizenry] in any case not to sign it,” the signatories to this remarkable document conclude.
And they call on everyone who cares about freedom and democracy to “speak out against the adoption of laws that are Stalinist and Hitlerite in their spirit,” reserving for themselves to appeal to the people of the Russian Federation “to stop the appearance of a new ‘1937,’” the high point of Stalin’s crimes against the peoples of the USSR.
Because of the importance of this document, the names of those who signed it deserve to be listed in full. They are Ludmila Alekseyeva, the president of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Svetlana Gannushkina of the Civic Support Committee; Lev Levinson of the Institute of Human rights; and Lev Ponomaryev, of the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights.”
Others include Yuri Samodurov, the co-chairman of the All-Russian Civic Congress, Yury Ryzhov the head of the Committee for the Defense of Scholars, Ernst Cherny, secretary of that committee, Andrey Buzin, the head of the Inter-regional Union of Voters, and Sergey Davidis of the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners.
Still others are Aleksey Prigarin, the first secretary of the Central Committee of the RKP-KPSS, journalist Dmitry Belomestnov, journalist Yevgeny Ikhlov, Viktor Sheynis of Yabloko, sociologist Alla Nazimova, Boris Vishnevsky of “Novaya gazeta,” Mikhail Shneyder of Solidarity, Antuan Arakelyan of the Coalition of Dialogue, and lawyer Vadim Prokhorov.
In addition, Nataly Yevdokimova of the Legal Defense Council, journalist Aleksandr Golts, Grigory Amnuel of International Dialogue, rights activist David Gorelishvili, Anatoly Rekant of the For Human Rights Committee, historian Nikolay Sorokin, and lawyer Mark Feygin also signed.
And finally, still other signatories include O.I. Orlov, Sergey Buryanov, and Sergey Mozgovoy of the All-Russian Civic Congress, and Yury Brovchenko of the Glasnost Foundation. These are all brave people, and both their names and their warning deserve to be remembered by those who think the current Russian government is not on the wrong path.

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