Vladimir Putin’s Russia has, especially in recent years, come under heavy criticism from many in the West. Much of this criticism, however, deals with Russian aggression toward Ukraine, the extrajudicial killings of critics of the Putin regime such as Alexander Litvinenko, or accusations of widespread corruption. All of these issues are clearly in violation of a multitude of laws, both Russian and international. Focusing on such issues, while undoubtedly important, pulls attention from more sinister subjects, namely the propagation of political repression through the application of Russian law.
Rule of law in Russia is an interesting topic, and the laws serve a variety of interests. The interests they don’t seem to serve, however, are those of ordinary Russian citizens. Take, for example, the story of a family of bakers in the city of Voronezh. In 2015 they were sentenced to eight and a half years in jail for the sale of traditional poppy-seed buns, which prosecutors deemed to constitute large-scale drug trafficking on account of the trace amounts of opium present in all poppy seeds. The motive behind the arrest, according to those arrested, was that they had refused to pay bribes in excess of $800 per month to law enforcement officials.
Taken in isolation, this case could be considered an abnormality, that either the defendants were constructing an elaborate ruse to escape justice (though this by no means appears to be the case) or that a few corrupt officials had played the system to their own gain. The truth, however, is that such stories are relatively common. In 2006, for example, businesswoman Yana Yakovleva, one of the subjects of Peter Pomerantsev’s critically acclaimed 2014 book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, was reportedly arrested shortly after refusing to pay kickbacks to a special police drugs unit. The technical term for this is ‘state raiding’, where government officials attempt to coerce payments by initiating a criminal case on trumped up or fabricated claims.
State raiding, however, is only one manner in which the letter of the law is used against the interests of ordinary citizens. Two of Russia’s more contentious laws, at least to those of us in the West, are the foreign agent law (officially named “On Amendments to Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent”) and the LGBT propaganda law (officially titled “For the purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”).
The first of these laws, the foreign agent law, is something of a spiritual continuation of Soviet policy. Designed to curtail the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in political action, this law requires NGOs involved in loosely defined political activity and receiving foreign donations to register as foreign agents. A Human Rights Watch piece explaining the significance of the law decries the stigmatization of NGOs forced to register as foreign agents, claiming that such a label publically demonizes them. Over 100 NGOs have been registered as foreign agents, leading some to shut down rather than operate under the foreign agent label. Furthermore, NGOs found in violation of the foreign agent law face a variety of penalties, ranging from forced suspension of the NGO’s activities to fines (both directed at the NGOs themselves and at their leaders) or prison. A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch further explains the ramifications of the law, available here, though at this point it should be abundantly clear that this law is aimed at the silencing of NGOs that could criticise the Putin regime.
The LGBT propaganda law, on the other hand, introduced penalties for individuals and organizations aimed at distributing what the Russian government refers to as “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. ‘Propaganda’ is, of course, a loaded term, in this case referring to the mere encouragement of tolerance toward LGBT communities. Moreover, an Al Jazeera article pointed out that, according to activists, this law has effectively condoned violence and discrimination against emerging LGBT activities. In this manner, discriminatory values have been entered into law, allowing for legal persecution of progressive elements and encouraging extrajudicial repression of LGBT communities.
Both of these policies contribute to an increasing inclination toward authoritarianism in the contemporary Russian state, an inclination also demonstrated through the enforcement of laws typical of a Western democracy. Take, for instance, Articles 280 and 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, which outlaw calls for extremist activity and the inciting of religious or ethnic hatred respectively. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, such laws are utilized to prosecute critics of the Putin regime. In late March, for example, The Moscow Times reported that a criminal case was opened under Article 282 against a deputy from the Kursk region, Olga Li, after she posted a video to YouTube critical of Putin’s policies. Yekaterina Vologzheninova was recently tried on similar charges for her posts on social media criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine, according to Amnesty International. Such cases, unfortunately, are far from unusual and represent only a part of the government’s efforts to silence its critics.
Taken holistically, the material presented here represents a limited examination of the perversion of rule of law in Russia. While Western governments are publically focused on Russia’s foreign policy, its actions in Ukraine and Syria, the extrajudicial killings of opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov, or the prevalence of corruption, it is important to recognize the means by which ordinary Russian citizens are impacted by the Putin regime’s policies. Whether they be victims of state raiding, of silencing through the foreign agent law, victims of violence spurred on by the LGBT propaganda law, or persecuted government critics, it is important to realize that these people represent the greatest hope for a change of course in Russian politics. Indeed, any significant and lasting rapprochement with the West must be preceded by improvements within the political climate of Russia itself.