Russian Politics: If You Can’t Suppress Them, Squeeze Them
BEFORE the Russian Duma broke for its annual summer holiday on July 13th, it had an important agenda to get through. In a flurry of hurried voting, the country’s parliament passed a series of laws—on NGOs, defamation, and the internet—meant to stiffen spines inside the regime and scare off and splinter those who are most actively opposed to it.
Despite signs of resistance from parties once deemed loyal to the Kremlin, the Duma is still under the control of the firmly pro-Kremlin United Russia party. As such, it remains a dependable instrument for Vladimir Putin, the president, in his struggle with the country’s opposition movement. At the moment, the Kremlin is not considering using force: calling in the troops would be ugly and risky as well as counterproductive. And with Mr Putin loth to see Russia become a Belarus-style pariah overnight, the Kremlin decided that, “If you can’t suppress them, squeeze them,” says Boris Makarenko of Centre for Political Technologies, a think-tank.
The legislative offensive began last month, with a law raising fines on those who attend unsanctioned demonstrations to as much as 300,000 roubles, or $9,300. Then came last week’s three new bills. The first would force NGOs that receive funding from abroad to submit to more rigorous financial checks and publicly declare themselves to be “foreign agents”, a term designed to discredit their work; the second would recriminalise libel, an offence taken out of the criminal code just last year, now with fines as high as 5m roubles; the third would create a “blacklist” of websites to be blocked, ostensibly so as to protect children from illegal or harmful content, but relying on technology that could be used against any online material the state decides to ban.
Legislators wrote the bills in a rush. The wording of the law on NGOs had to be quickly edited between the first and second reading when it became clear that two allies of the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, which receives donations from abroad, and the state-managed RT television channel, which gets money from foreign advertisers, would fall into the category of “foreign agents”