Extreme Makeover: Russian Laws Adapt to Rise of Hate Groups

This month, the State Duma passed, and President Putin subsequently signed, a series of amendments to Russian laws intended to help the authorities combat extremism. Over the past few years, xenophobia and racism have risen to dangerous levels in Russia. Thus, a legislative response to this trend is not only reasonable, but long overdue.

Some organizations, however, have expressed concern that the amendments will be used against legitimate political opponents to the Kremlin rather than fascist groups. For example, several journalist groups have argued that the amendment dealing with the media, which requires reporters to mention whether a court or the government has deemed a group as ‘extremist’, is an unjustified restriction on freedom of the press. Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, also chimed in, saying, “The amendments open the way to an arbitrary curtailment of legitimate political debate and the free flow of information. They may result in convictions of journalists for committing professional mistakes or, what is worse, for reporting on issues of public importance in good faith.”

Both the media groups and Haraszti also claimed that the amendments lack a clear definition of ‘extremism.’ The definition of an extremist group in the law is one who is “motivated by political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred or is motivated by hatred towards any social group.”

Finally, the media groups and Haszti criticized the inclusion of ‘hooliganism’ within the purview of the fight against extremism. The law specifically applies to hooliganism in two circumstances – (1) hooliganism conducted with the use of weapons; and (2) hooliganism motivated by political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred or hatred towards any social group.

My take on this is that the amendments are a rational response to a real problem. In fact, one of the major failures of the second Putin administration has been its fickle response to violent xenophobia and racism. On its face, the law is reasonable and would not raise any eyebrows if passed, for example, by the Swedish parliament. I would agree with IFEX and the OSCE that the amendment dealing with the media could be abused – it’s no secret that controlling the [television] media is a favorite pastime of the Russian authorities.

I disagree, however, with the claims that the amendments lack a clear definition of ‘extremism’ and that including hooliganism as an extremist activity in certain circumstances is overinclusive. First, I fail to see how the definition (see above) could be any more specific. For example, the definition would likely not include Marxist-Leninists, who are arguably ‘extremist’, but would include neo-nazis. In other words, the definition is sufficiently targeted towards the ‘hate’ groups that are the only significant sources of ‘extremist’ violence in Russia today.

Second, the criticism over including hooliganism in the amendments is just plain wrong. Much of the time, racist or xenophobic violence is carried out by skinheads in unorganized attacks on synagogues or Caucasian street vendors. There may not be an organized group that publishes pamphlets or gives speeches, but the attacks are motivated by ‘extremist’ hatred. Still, the authorities did not have enough evidence to prosecute the attackers for more than khuliganstvo. Now, if a prosecutor can demonstrate that the attackers were motivated by racial hatred, the crime will carry a greater penalty. I do not understand why Western observers oppose this change – they themselves criticized prosecuting skinheads for mere hooliganism in the past. For example, Amnesty International “criticize[d] Russian prosecutors for filing many racially motivated attacks as ‘hooliganism,’ a charge which carries lighter sentences.”

The response to these amendments – like the response to the NGO law last year – amounts to preemptive criticism. The amendments do not contain anything objectionable, but the critics assume that the law will be enforced in an objectionable way. And, as with the NGO law, I would argue that life will go on and the amendments will actually have a positive effect.

[Related links: Amnest International report, Russian Federation – Violent Racism Out of Control; and Living with Hate, from the current issue of Russia Profile on the subject of Russia as a multiethnic nation]

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