To the Extreme

A new Russian law shuts down Kremlin opposition.

Fred Weir

Offshore banking has helped Citibank clients hide millions.
Moscow—Russia’s parliament has passed a tough new Kremlin-authored law against extremism that opposition forces fear is designed to provide legal cover for a looming crackdown on all independent political activity.

The law, which will enable police to summarily shut down any organization deemed “extremist,” was rushed through the legislative process in barely three weeks and passed on June 27—record time for the normally sluggish Duma, Russia’s Kremlin-dominated lower house of parliament. President Vladimir Putin had ordered deputies not to leave for summer recess until they adopted this and several other “urgent” pieces of legislation.

Supporters of the law say it is needed to combat the explosive rise of violent racists, neofascists and Islamic fundamentalists in Russia. A spate of vicious attacks on non-white foreigners by skinheads, two anti-Semitic bombings and a downtown Moscow rampage by flag-waving soccer fans have recently focused public attention on the threat of right-wing mayhem. “People thought Hitler was just a freak, until it was too late,” says Boris Reznik, a deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. “We need to take action, urgently.”

But activists from Russia’s powerful Communist Party and many independent left-wing, environmental and global justice groups suspect the legislation is really aimed at them. “We’re in favor of fighting fascism, racism and ethnic chauvinism, but these are all included in existing laws,” says Tamara Pletneva, a Communist Party deputy. “Under this law, anyone who goes to a meeting and criticizes the president can be arrested and his organization shut down. The goal here is to silence all opposition.”

The law’s definitions of extremism include activities aimed at overthrowing the existing order, inciting racial or ethnic hatred, terrorism, displaying Nazi symbols, or forming illegal armed militias. Under the law, authorities will have the prerogative to immediately suspend any party, religious group or non-governmental organization whose members are accused of extremism. Broadcasters, newspapers and Internet sites charged with disseminating extremist ideas can similarly be closed down.

The law also calls for creation of a new federal commission—in effect, a new police agency—to collect information on suspected extremists. Its only protective clause states that activities which “advocate legitimate rights and freedoms” cannot be construed as extremism, as long as they are carried out legally. But it also enshrines some more controversial definitions of extremism that might be stretched to apply to almost any legitimate opposition, such as “jeopardizing the security of Russia,” “humiliating national dignity” and “hooliganism and acts of vandalism.”

Oleg Shein, an independent Duma deputy and trade-union activist, says Russia’s flagging economic growth, rising inflation and a looming wave of tough market reforms explain the Kremlin’s urgent desire for these new provisions. “There is a flowing tide of social disaffection over stagnating incomes and rising prices, and this has the authorities worried,” Shein says. “Rather than let society organize itself, with independent trade unions and other grassroots protest groups, the Kremlin has opted for old-fashioned repression of protest. The purpose of this law is not to battle extremism, but to crush public initiative.”

Critics say existing laws to combat genuine extremism are not being implemented effectively. They point out that only 120 police were on hand to supervise some 8,000 drunken soccer fans watching a June 9 World Cup game on a giant screen near the Kremlin. It took hours for cops to mobilize and contain the riot after the Russian team lost.

“Events leave us in no doubt about whom the authorities consider extremists,” says Maxim Kuchinsky, a leader of Rainbow Keepers, a left-wing environmental group. Kuchinsky was one of 200 anti-globalists who attempted to stage a peaceful rally on Moscow’s Pushkin Square on May 28. About 2,000 specially equipped riot police quickly closed in on the protesters, arresting 27 and dispersing the rest. Organizers say they had obtained a legal permit, but it was cancelled at the last moment because the demonstration “interfered with the work of city authorities.” Says Kuchinsky: “The police got ahead of themselves. It was not legal to ban a meeting on those grounds at that time. But under the new law, it will be.”

Says Boris Kagarlitsky, a left-wing sociologist: “Extremist attitudes are commonly found among Russian officials and police themselves. That’s why they can’t be trusted to define extremism, or to implement any law that gives them unlimited power to fight against it.”

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Fred Weir is a Moscow correspondent for In These Times and regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, the London Independent, Canadian Press and the South China Morning Post. He is the co-author of Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System.
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