Vienna, April 14 – Just as the Soviet authorities “criminalized” any systemic criticism, so too the post-Soviet Russian powers that be are moving in the same direction through laws and decrees that “criminalize” extremism without defining the limits of that all too elastic term, according to a Russian human rights expert.
In a presentation at the Sakharov Center yesterday, Yevgeny Ikhlov, the secretary of the Experts Council “For Human Rights,” traced the way in which Soviet leaders limited freedom of speech by criminalizing criticism of various kinds and argued that the post-Soviet Russian leaders have been following the same path (forum-msk.org/material/politic/2909658.html).
Although the Soviet leadership harshly punished its ideological opponents from the beginning, Ikhlov said, it “criminalized” any systemic criticism only in the 1960s as a way of providing “a legal foundation” for totalitarianism in the face of the growing dissident movement and the willingness of members of that unit to appeal to international public opinion.
After August 1991, many Russians expected all that to change because their country was positioning itself “in the European political context.” But that didn’t happen, or at least it did not happen in the way they hoped, because fears about threats to the new power became the basis for actions paralleling those Soviet leaders who felt themselves threatened by very different groups.
But it is worth noting, Ikhlov pointed out that “a consensus including the Russian ruling circles, the intelligentsia and the majority of opposition parties (from right to left) formed” about the need to come up with legal formulas of one kind or another to prevent these new threats from undermining Russian democracy.
Unfortunately, as few recognized at the time, their efforts in that direction represented the first steps down a slippery slope which could threaten democracy just as much as many of the “extremists” against whom many Russians were quite prepared to allow the government to act against in their name.
“The active use of radical anti-Semitic rhetoric by the anti-Yeltsin opposition in 1992-93 and the effort to block any ‘avatars’ of bolshevism,” Ikhlov continues, led “to the inclusion in the new (defensive, that is ‘defensive of the August revolution) constitution of 1993” provisions that allowed the powers that be to prohibit all kinds of speech.
Thus, the Constitution specified that “propaganda or agitation giving rise to social, racial, national or religious hatred or antagonism is not permitted. Prohibited as well is the propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy,” all things many Russians and others could agree are evil.
But the powers that be did not stop with that, Ikhlov pointed out. After Vladimir Zhirinovsky won so much support, Boris Yeltsin issued his March 1995 anti-fascist decree which combined the ideas of struggle with the nightmares of the regime and the population with “the appearance of the new term ‘political extremism.’”
That measure, Ikhlov continued, included a variety of terms which it did not carefully define, such as “fascism,” a term for which as he pointed out “academics have not been able to come up with a legally correct definition.” And lack of definition not surprisingly opened the way to abuse, with officials invoking it against ever more groups.
Then, in 1999 and especially after 2000,”began the struggle with terrorism.” According to Ikhlov, it was “in principle possible before this” to treat separately for legal purposes “racism and hate crimes, neo-Nazism, terrorist actions … crimes against the state … and insulting criticism of the powers that be and calls to civil disobedience.”
But with the rise of Vladimir Putin, there took place “the unification of all these types into one – the main – crime.” That crime became “’extremism,’” one that “by its all-embracing character in practice compared with ‘counter-revolutionary activity in the 1920s and the ‘elastic’ and ominous Article 58.”
And that effort was pushed forward when, after the anti-Semitic posters in May 2002 and the football pogrom in the center of the Russian capital a month later, “a way of panic in liberal circles” led to the adoption of “an anti-extremist law” that opened the way for the powers that be to treat in the same way “common racism” and “terrorism and conspiracies.”
After that law was adopted, there took place another “most important” change, Ikhlov said. “The criminalization of social class antagonism” that had existed now was to be applied to “any social group,” since in no part of the law was class defined. As a result, “According to this new law, “it would be possible to convict not only Hitler or Savinkov but Lenin.”
In succeeding years, Ikhlov said, the situation has deteriorated still further, with amendments like those adopted in April 2008 adding to the number of groups Russian law now finds any criticism of or action against to be a manifestation of extremism. In this way, what was intended to criminalize racist behavior now criminalizes attacks on even political parties.
“We see,” Ikhlov said having cited extensive passages from these legislative acts, “how rapidly is growing the list of ‘thought crimes’ in our country. In particular, from the indications of criminally punishable propaganda of social antagonism has fallen away the ‘fig leaf’ of [a requirement that such actions to be judged extremist involve] force.”
This is only at the level of law; the situation with regard to practice is even more disturbing, Ikhlov suggested. There, investigators and prosecutors can go after almost anyone they want and bring charges under the elastic terms of the current legislation. Such actions, of course, “contradict [other] parts of the Russian Constitution.”
But what is especially worrisome, Ikhlov concluded, is that the Russian powers that be, like their Soviet predecessors, are increasingly using such laws not to go after those who have acted or engaged in real plans to act against the law but only have sharply criticized the regime, something they have the right to do.
If that trend is not reversed, he suggested, then the future of the Russian Federation may recapitulate the Soviet past in ways that will threaten not just freedom of speech but all the other freedoms that Russians are supposed to have according to their own Constitution and the various international accords Moscow officials have signed.