Thanks to Russia’s new, flexible definition of “extremist” activity, criminal charges can be brought against anyone who offends the “national dignity” or commits “public slander of a state official.” The latest victim: Yabloko’s Andrei Piontkovsky, whose critical books on the Putin administration have now been deemed extremist. According to a report in today’s Wall Street Journal, the prosecutor from Krasnodar is threatening to close down the Yabloko office for distributing these books (most bookstores refuse to sell the books out of fear), and Piontkovsky is expecting to be charged with extremism once he returns to Russia in July.
The sovereign democratic revolution will not be televised
Not everyone remembers that the extremism law was originally modified out of a legitimate concern for the enormous problem of hate crimes in Russia, to be used protect the public from those who spread racist propaganda and incite violence. Many nations face the same difficult legal challenge of creating hate crimes legislation while maintaining equality before the law. However, not much time was wasted before the new legislation was exploited for political convenience, confirming the worst fears of freedom of expression advocates. For example, the ultra-nationalist opposition Rodina Party, which was well known for spreading deeply offensive racist material and inciting hatred, was brought under the new extremism law and was banned from participation in last year’s Moscow City elections – a move which RFE/RL called “a dress rehearsal for the 2007 parliamentary elections.” Did Russia go too far in banning a party, albeit a racist one, from participation? Freedom of expression NGO Article 19 issued a statement saying “Although the broadcast [of Rodina] was certainly offensive, the total exclusion of this party from the normal political processes was a disproportionate.” By applying the extremism law to Piontkovsky and Yabloko, it appears the procuracy has officially dropped all pretenses of safeguarding against ultra-nationalism (in fact, one would be hard pressed to argue that the Kremlin doesn’t encourage Nashism), and is now openly using this thin legal precedent as a tool of repression. This abuse of law is strongly reminiscent of the instrumental tactics perfected by the procuracy during the Yukos affair, and similar to the fraudulent methodology of regulatory attacks used to steal from foreign investors. It is now clearly evident that the Kremlin has become addicted to counterfeit legalism.