The new anti-treason bill approved today by Russia’s upper house of parliament has prompted concern from experts, academics and human rights advocates, who say it could be used against almost anyone.
“I see a lot of people around me who are experts and journalists who have become cautious, and who are becoming more and more cautious every day,” said intelligence analyst Andrei Soldatov, the co-founder of Agentura.ru.
The bill, proposed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), broadens the definition of treason in Russia’s Criminal Code to include steps that endanger Russia’s “constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity.”
While supporters argue that the bill’s wording was meant to eliminate arbitrary interpretation, critics say the new version has the exact opposite effect.
The bill now targets those who offer consultation or financial services to individuals and organizations engaged in “activities directed against the security of Russia.”
It also criminalizes receiving or unwittingly passing on alleged state secrets, amending current Russian legislation that prohibits obtaining such information through underhand means such as bribery, deception, blackmail, or threats of physical violence.
The move is aimed largely at Russia’s embattled non-governmental agencies, many of which focus on promoting democracy or human rights advocacy, and which have come under close scrutiny in recent months.
But with this wider definition, observers say it could target anyone from journalists and NGO workers to simple scientific researchers.
Ernst Chorny, spokesman for the Public Committee for the Protection of Scientists, says the move coincides with the Kremlin’s attempt to bring Russian society – its scientific researchers included – under total control.
He pointed to a series of Russian scientists sentenced to long prison terms in recent years, including Yevgeny Afanasyev and Sviatoslav Bobyshev, two St. Petersburg academics who were jailed for 12 years earlier this year for allegedly spying for the Chinese.
“The authorities have their own interpretation of what’s secret,” Chorny said, adding that the law legally enshrines a trend of government interference in science that has been building for years.
Soldatov, who co-authored The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, cast doubt over whether the Kremlin will actually go the extra step to prosecute offenders under the new anti-treason legislation. He suggested it is primarily meant as a signal to opposition-minded citizens with foreign contacts.
“You need to only implement this law to show people that you have tools to use against them,” Soldatov said. “It’s mostly about self-censorship – that’s why it’s so effective.”
The move falls in line with what other critics have alleged is the Kremlin’s wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, as well as what it perceives to be foreign interference in Russian domestic affairs, since Putin’s reelection last March.
The Duma has passed a series of other controversial laws in recent months, including one requiring NGOs which receive financing from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” as well as a law that re-criminalizes libel.
In perhaps its most high-profile move to stem the activities of those claiming to promote democracy in Russia, the Kremlin ordered the United States Agency for International Development to cease all operations in the country. The organization funded a wide variety of Russian civil society organizations for about 20 years.
“Seventy years, ago this would have made sense,” said Alexander Cherkasov, a senior board member at the Memorial human rights center.
Groups or organizations that break the law would receive between three and eight years in prison, while individuals would receive a fine on average of $10,000 as well as a prison sentence of up to four years.
The authorities, for their part, make no bones about targeting Russians with allegedly questionable ties to foreign individuals or organizations. Yury Gorbunov, a deputy director of the FSB, was reported as saying earlier this month that the legislation is specifically aimed at Russian NGOs, which he believes are engaged in anti-Russian espionage.
Others, such as Public Chamber member and pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, argue that the new legislation is necessary to prevent the sort of violence seen on May 6, when mass riots broke out during an opposition rally ahead of Putin’s inauguration.
“Russian officials have to react, meaning that if somebody violates the law it’s easier to stop him in the beginning than to wait until the situation becomes more dangerous,” he said.
The Investigative Committee last Friday charged firebrand Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov with inciting mass riots, based on evidence shown in an NTV documentary that allegedly featured Udaltsov planning a revolt with a Georgian politician. Udaltsov has claimed innocence.
Meanwhile, Left Front activist Leonid Razvozzhayev claimed he was abducted in Kiev last week and spirited to Moscow, where he admitted to similar charges after three days of torture. The Investigate Committee denies that allegation, saying he turned himself in.
For activists such as Cherkasov, this new anti-treason law plays a key role in painting pro-democracy and human rights advocates as enemies.
“We are not traitors to our country, but exactly the opposite,” he said. “We’re restoring its good name.”