Russia: Anti-Extremism Law Amendment Amid Protests in the Far East

Russia: Anti-Extremism Law Amendment Amid Protests in the Far East

A recent amendment to Russia’s anti-extremism legislation categorizes alienating territories from the country as extremism. The change arguably serves as a deterrent to the current mass protests in the Far East city of Khabarovsk, a persistent threat to the regime’s stability, as well as a new legal provision for anti-extremism legislation that has already been used.

Legislative changes and domestic opposition

On the 31st of July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an amendment to the country’s anti-extremism law, according to which alienating territories from the Russian Federation equates to extremism. The legislative change complements the country’s strict counter-extremism laws, which have arguably been used as an instrument for tackling political dissent. The amendment was introduced in an environment of on-going anti-government protests in the Far East city of Khabarovsk, situated in a region with prominent local identity and a build-up of grievances towards the Kremlin. 

Russia’s counter-extremism approach

The counter-extremism legislation system of Russia most notably consists of the 2002 Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity, as well as other provisions found in the country’s Criminal and Administrative Code and other laws. Russia’s Anti-extremism law does not define extremism itself. Still, instead, it incorporates a list of violent and non-violent offences such as the mass distribution of extremist materials, organisation and preparation of extremist acts, criticism of government officials and politicians, and incitement of hatred based on social status, ethnicity, religion or race among others. The Law received an amendment in 2014, which provides authorities with the legal provision to independently ban websites and social media platforms, without a court order.  

The vague language in Russia’s counter-extremism legislation and the tendency of the government to exploit it for political purposes have inevitably shaped the Kremlin’s approach to extremist threats. In 2006, Russian human rights journalist Stanislav Dmitrievsky was convicted under the Anti-Extremism law, due to his publication of two statements of leaders of Chechen separatists. However, he was not linked to the interviewees. Moreover, members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot received religious hatred charges after performing a song criticising the Russian clergy’s support of President Putin in an Orthodox Cathedral. The counter-extremism law’s provisions have been used against the Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses religious denomination, as well as to blacklist translations of the Qur’an, a decision which was later reversed. Furthermore, authorities have targeted both LinkedIn and Telegram due to their refusal to share their users’ data with the Russian government. 

The recent amendment to Article 1 of the Anti-extremism law further complements the Kremlin’s ability to tackle political opposition. The change adds another item to the list of what qualifies as extremism – the violation of the territorial integrity of Russia, including demonstrations or rhetoric in support of a territory’s secession from the country, thus penalising separatism. The amendment, therefore, targets those who openly call for separating from the Federation. The Anti-Extremism law change, which entered into force on 11th August, was implemented during the more than two-month-long mass anti-government demonstrations in the Far East city of Khabarovsk. It, therefore, presents authorities with another legal provision to deal with political dissent, and specifically with calls for secession in the region. 

Protests in the Far East challenge the Kremlin

Protests in Khabarovsk, which began on July 11th, were triggered by the questionable arrest of the Khabarovsk Kray’s (federal subject) governor, Sergei Furgal. Since his election in 2018, Furgal, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, has notably refused to rig last year’s local parliamentary elections, resulting in President Putin’s United Russia Party winning only two seats. He has also reduced his salary, among other populist moves, resulting in his support surpassing that of Putin in the region. However, he was not even a critic of Putin’s regime. The arrest of Furgal due to his involvement in a murder 15 years ago and his being currently held to be tried in Moscow, located nearly 5,000 kilometres away from Khabarovsk, met the disapproval of the people there.

Socio-economic grievances and antagonism towards the Kremlin have also driven the demonstrations. Khabarovsk Kray had the lowest average turnout in the July 1st constitutional amendment vote, which extended the limits of the Presidential term and also provided the President with more control over law enforcement and the judiciary. In December 2019 President Putin moved the administrative centre of the Far East Federal district from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, a blow to the region’s pride. Also, the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the dramatic drop in oil prices, and low wages have affected Khabarovsk’s living conditions. 

Although not met with force, the demonstrations have been answered with convictions on extremism charges. As of September, very few arrests have been made, and protests have continued despite coronavirus restrictions. Furthermore, the media and police have attempted to downplay the protests, which are reported to include about 30,000. Nevertheless, independent journalists, activists and bloggers have covered the events. This has resulted in journalist Ivan Safronov being charged with treason, and journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva convicted of justifying terrorism. 

Prognosis 

Although demonstrations in Khabarovsk are the most sustained form of political dissent during President Vladimir Putin’s rule, they are unlikely to present a long-term challenge for his regime. Authorities are likely not to use force in tackling the protests, due to a weak regional security apparatus, and a strategy of letting political dissent decrease over time. However, if the demonstrations spread nationwide, they are probably going to be met with force. The new Anti-Extremism law amendment serves both as a warning to ambitious regional protesters in Khabarovsk, as well as a legal provision to deal with future secessionist attempts.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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