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A nation of criminal suspects An editorial by ‘Meduza’

Source: Meduza
Photo: Pavel Dolganov / Trend Media / PhotoXPress

On June 24, 2016, the State Duma approved a series of laws spearheaded by deputy Irina Yarovaya. This legislation will fundamentally change Russian society.

The State Duma has approved a whole mess of major new laws, articulating at last what we should expect from Russia's parliament. Laws can directly contradict the Constitution. Laws don't require special consultations with experts. Laws don't demand discussion at all—you can approve one in just a few days. Laws can be deliberately impractical and totally irrelevant to their stated aims. 

The Duma has effectively destroyed Russia's freedom of assembly. Lawmakers have created restrictions that allow the state to control the mass media and imprison people for reposts on social media. The Duma has deprived hundreds of children of the chance to escape orphanages in Russia for foster families abroad. Lawmakers have legislated homophobia. They've declared nonprofits to be enemies. 

It seemed like there wasn't another law that could surprise anyone. On the last day before its summer recess and Russia's parliamentary elections in September, however, the Duma found a way.

“Yarovaya's legislation” requires all telecom operators and many online resources to store records of every single telephone call, all correspondence, and any messages. When you call a customer service line, you're usually greeted by an automated voice warning you that your call might be recorded for quality assurance. Now you can play yourself that warning in your head, every time you pick up the phone to talk to your parents, your friends, or your colleagues. And data encryption won't save you: the new legislation bans the use of any encryption that the Federal Security Service can't crack.

The main takeaway from “Yarovaya's legislation” is that the authorities have declared every last citizen in Russia to be a criminal suspect.

The laws expand the criminal liability of adolescents over fourteen, too, raising from 22 to 32 the number of criminal-code articles for which they can be prosecuted. Courts will even be able to send teenagers to prison for failing to report certain crimes. There's a list of those crimes in the legislation, but who's going to read it? 

Basically, the authorities are asking suspects to report themselves, and they're trying to cultivate this readiness in Russians from an early age. Both children and adults are being told: you're either an investigator or a criminal; there is no third option. 

The Duma spent just minutes debating the second and third readings of today's legislation. Communist deputy Yuri Sinelshchikov complained helplessly from the podium that he only managed to get a copy of the laws earlier that morning, and the night before he had to rely on journalists to learn about last-minute revisions. Thinking back to five years ago, Sinelshchikov said it was hard to believe that lawmakers would ever be in such a hurry to approve legislation so monumental.

But should we really share Sinelshchikov's surprise? Five years ago, Russia held parliamentary elections marred by too many violations to count. The authorities responded to citizens' attempts to speak out against dishonest elections by introducing strict new prohibitions, launching criminal investigations, and handing down harsh prison sentences. On its last day before the next elections, does it make sense to expect anything different from a Duma that started off by breaking so many laws?

Yes, today Russia's lawlessness has finally become law. Yes, tomorrow we'll wake up in a different country. These phrases are used too often to describe what is happening in Russia. But, for once, it's the truth.

The editors at ‘Meduza’

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