Fear and loathing
How the Kremlin is using the law for political ends
For generations of Russian leaders, the law has been a tool of state power, not a limit on its abuse. In recent months, as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and his advisers have navigated an unfamiliar political environment, they too have fallen back on a kind of nominal legalism, in which the law is less for protecting the citizenry than an instrument of power.
As the Kremlin sees it, compared with uglier measures of neutralising dissent, the law is an “efficient and civilised tool” that allows for a certain “wiliness,” says Mikhail Krasnov of the Higher School of Economics. In practice, that means the law can be deployed selectively against political opponents, or laws can be drafted to solve immediate problems.
On September 14th a majority in the Duma voted to strip Gennady Gudkov of his seat in parliament, after a committee found him in violation of a law that prevents deputies from profiting from private business while in office. Mr Gudkov, a deputy with the left-leaning Just Russia party, says he was targeted for being the most outspoken member of a small anti-Kremlin group of lawmakers. Moreover, his past as a KGB lieutenant colonel made him not just an opponent, but a traitor.
The committee’s allegation may indeed be true (though other politicians attract no ire for living strangely well on modest salaries). But Mr Gudkov’s version of events rings true. His troubles began only when he started speaking at anti-Putin rallies and giving impassioned speeches in the Duma against Kremlin-favoured legislation. He says that his expulsion shows that not only “is it possible to distort the law as convenient” but that “it’s possible to go entirely beyond the law without consequence.”
The past months have been a busy season for the Russian legal system. In August three women from a punk collective, Pussy Riot, were sentenced to two years each in prison for an anti-Putin stunt in a Moscow cathedral. In June a package of new repressive laws was voted into force by the Duma. It raised fines for unsanctioned demonstrations and required foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents” (the authorities have just told one of the main sources of such grants,America’s USAID aid agency, to cease operations). Other laws recriminalise libel and create a blacklist of (loosely defined) offensive websites.
Taken together, these new laws are not as likely to be consistently enforced as much as they are meant to intimidate. Above all, the goal is to put the opposition and its supporters in a state of permanent legal jeopardy.
The Russian legal code is a thicket of often contradictory rules and responsibilities. Ella Paneyakh of the Institution for the Rule of Law at the European University of St Petersburg says that owners of small and medium-sized businesses “cannot even keep track of the law, let alone decide whether to follow it.” That leaves them vulnerable to arbitrary predation by law-enforcement bodies.
This sense of opacity and impenetrability gives the authorities the upper hand. The overall impression, says Igor Kalyapin of the Committee Against Torture, is that the “law is the property of those of who enforce it, and written exclusively for them.” Mr Kalyapin, who defends victims of police abuse in Chechnya, is now the subject of a criminal probe for releasing information from an ongoing investigation, a little-used law that even the main police investigator in the relevant case says should not apply. Mr Kalyapin attributes his legal troubles to his organisation’s work in documenting abuses in Chechnya.
The danger in using the law to solve short-term political problems, say people inside the Kremlin as well as its critics, is that it risks creating a precedent. Legal sanctions, even when subjectively applied, can take on a momentum of their own. In the Duma, members of United Russia worry that their vote to expel Mr Gudkov might lead to a broader purge of Duma representatives who have commercial interests. For that reason, Mr Gudkov would have kept his seat if the vote had been secret, says a United Russia deputy. “There is a lot of fear,” he says. “A lot of people came to the Duma so as to protect their business.”