A new bill aimed at curbing extremist groups in Russia has failed to win widespread support from Jewish leaders and pro-democracy activists, as worries mount that the measure could be used to stifle political dissent ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
Last Friday, the State Duma, Russia s lower house of Parliament, voted 311-90 to pass the legislation, which strengthens police surveillance powers and broadens the definition of extremists. The term is widely used in Russian political vocabulary to label a wide spectrum of attitudes, from anti-Semitism and religious hatred to anti-Kremlin activism and unsanctioned anti-government protests.
The bill places Jewish groups and human-rights activists in the difficult position of potentially having to prioritize between cracking down on extremism and protecting democratic freedoms. It is a tension that has surfaced many times as Russian President Vladamir Putin moved to consolidate his power, while also reaching out to segments of the Jewish community.
“The Jewish community in Russia feels itself between the devil and a deep blue sea,” said Borukh Gorin of the Federation of the Jewish Communities, in an interview with JTA about the bill.
“On the one hand, we support this kind of legislation and often we are the main driving force behind drafting these laws,” said Gorin, who represents the group believed to enjoy close relations with the Kremlin. “On the other hand, we have the experience that formally democratic legislation in this country” does not necessarily serve “as a real democratic tool.”
In addition to tackling acts that fit the more conventional definition of hate crimes, the bill, among other things, criminalizes justification of terrorism, prevention of free voting and violation of secrecy of ballot.
A leading Jewish expert on hate crimes, Alexander Brod, said although he favored the adoption of the new bill, it was too controversial to be easily put into practice.
“I am one of the supporters of the bill, however imperfect it is, Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, told JTA. “My concern is, however, that the very notion of extremism is described here too widely.”
Brod said that the bill could “eliminate the sense of impunity many real extremists enjoyed in Russia until recently.” Yet, he added, “Authorities and law enforcement agencies rarely use the articles of the Criminal Code already on paper” that prohibit inciting ethnic or religious hatred.
Many experts agreed that the new bill could herald tough times for extremists in Russia — if only one could define who they are.
Critics also say the bill could be used to further curb freedom of the press in Russia, which has already experienced serious limitations since Putin took office in 2000. The new bill requires that any banned group mentioned in the media be identified as such. According to the bill, a media outlet may be fined up to $2,000 and its work suspended for up to 90 days if the court decides it supports extremist activity.
The bill also makes it a crime to slander a government official.
Under the bill, security services have the right to tap the phone calls of anyone suspected of extremism, which critics say is a violation of some basic principles of the Russian Constitution. Some officials argue that illegal phone taping has been used by security services for decades, and the proposed law would simply legalize the practice.
Critics also pointed out that some clauses in the new bill are duplicates of at least half a dozen articles of the Russian Criminal Code already in existence. Brod and others say these articles have rarely been enforced and there is little indication that similar articles in the new bill will be used more frequently in Russian judicial practice.
The bill is expected to sail through the upper house of Parliament and be signed into law by Putin.
While those fighting manifestations of racism in Russia have reasons to welcome the bill, some said they feared any argument in the marketplace might now be criminalized as an act of extremism. Likewise, critics of the bill on both ends of the political spectrum assert that if the bill is adopted any media report mentioning a scuffle between members of different ethic groups could be found to have broken the law by fanning interethnic strife.
Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy who opposed the bill, said that even making common claims like all Jews are smart or all Russians are simple-hearted could now be treated as criminal offenses.
The bill bars those suspected of extremism from running for government office, a restriction that could prevent many of Putin’s political opponents from running for the Duma in this December s election.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy and a leader of the anti-Kremlin opposition, said that only three of the 13 definitions of extremism in the new bill were valid definitions. Ryzhkov added that the bill was designed by the Kremlin to curb political opposition and not real hate-mongers and other extremists.
Many Russians seem to back this view.
Last Friday, 97 percent of callers to the Echo Moskvy popular radio station agreed with the notion that the bill was actually a tool for fighting political opponents of the Kremlin.
Ryzhkov, an independent lawmaker, said he was going to file an appeal with the Constitutional Court questioning the bill. He warned that although the Kremlin has never commented on this figure, there are 30 political prisoners in Russia and the bill paves the way for broader political repression.
The bill also stipulates that if the media discusses an organization that has been banned, they must mention the punishments. It also introduces fines for printers and publishers for disseminating literature deemed extremist.