Making life difficult Russian lawmakers rush to tighten legislation ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections
In the lead up to the close of the State Duma’s fall 2020 session on December 24, Russian lawmakers were working in “turbo mode.” In a matter of days, they submitted and successfully adopted — although sometimes only in the first reading — an array of bills that will seriously tighten the country’s legislation concerning “foreign agents,” public demonstrations, election campaigning, and “educational activities.” Generally speaking, lawmakers from the ruling party, United Russia, introduced these initiatives, though they were sometimes joined by their colleagues from nominal opposition parties. Politicians and experts alike told Meduza that the new legislation will make it much more difficult for opposition parties to nominate candidates, run campaigns, organize public rallies, and monitor the integrity of elections in Russia. All of which will affect the State Duma elections set to take place in 2021.
Why did the Kremlin rush to tighten legislation?
The prohibitive drafts laws that the Russian parliament was considering at the end of the 2020 were the Kremlin’s response to what it sees as foreign interference in the upcoming State Duma elections (Meduza wrote about this in a previous article, you can read it in Russian here).
“The security forces [siloviki] are actively instilling in the president that the West is interfering in our elections, so this campaign is almost a war, this isn’t even an internal policy, it’s external,” a United Russia party member told Meduza. A source close to the State Duma’s leadership also confirmed that the new laws are being drafted and adopted ahead of the parliamentary elections, “So that everything goes smoothly, without fanfare.”
“Of course, they will try to interfere, they always do, and not only in our elections, but almost all over the world. This is global policy. Just like there are bases all over the world, there is interference on a worldwide scale. We know about it and are getting ready for it. But we will be able to efficiently block it only if the overwhelming majority of our citizens understand that a) it is interference, b) we must counteract it, and c) it is unacceptable and we must determine our destiny ourselves,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his annual press conference on December 17.
To give specific examples, the Kremlin considers the strategic voting initiative “Smart Vote” — spearheaded by opposition figure Alexey Navalny and his team — an instrument of foreign influence, as well as any training courses for election monitors or educational events on topics related to politics. According to one of Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration, these initiatives create a “general background of dissatisfaction,” along with critical publications directed at government officials and United Russia lawmakers on social media.
The State Duma passed these dozens of new laws at an astonishing rate. According to Vera Ganzya, a lawmaker from the Communist Party (KPRF), the deputies didn’t even have time to read many of the new documents. “To pass such laws that have a serious impact on the internal political life of the country, they needed to be comprehensively discussed. But [in parliament] some of the laws were passed in three readings in one day,” Ganzya says, outraged. “These laws were adopted hastily under the pretext of shielding the country’s political life from the influence of foreign states, but under this misleading sort of pretext the authorities are trying to finish off the last remnants of the opposition in the country. The seventh convocation of the State duma will go down in history as the most reactionary Duma since the beginning of Russian parliamentarianism.”
“The end of the year is the time when you have to take care of the things you didn’t do during the year. It seems to me that this is a common occurrence for everyone, not just for the public service, but [also] for private business. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m used to saying what I know,” says United Russia lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein, who heads the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee and co-authored several of the recent bills, explaining the raft of new legislation.
According to Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chairman of the election watchdog organization “Golos,” the authorities are trying to compensate for United Russia’s falling approval ratings with large-scale restrictions and prohibitions. The elections will be held under martial law, and the main actors will be “foreign agents” — and given recent legislative changes allowing for individuals to be given this label, this could mean absolutely any citizen.
“I think the phrase ‘foreign agents’ will become the main one during the parliamentary elections. It will be presented as interference — this will be a propaganda campaign” Melkonyants predicts.
Which laws will affect candidates running for parliament?
At the end of 2020, an entire package of draft laws was submitted to the State Duma, expanding the concept of “foreign agent” and introducing corresponding prohibitions and fines. On December 23, the State Duma passed a law in its third reading allowing for individual people to be recognized as foreign agents and added to a corresponding registry; the Federation Council also supported the legislation and Putin signed it into law before the end of the year.
With this legislation, Russian lawmakers made the foreign agent label applicable to anyone involved in political activity and/or collecting information on Russia’s military and technical activities, while at the same time receiving funds from abroad.
In developing this law, the State Duma also passed another bill in its first reading, according to which a person recognized as a foreign agent who runs for elected office will be considered a “foreign-agent candidate.” Such candidates will be required to disclose their status on their endorsement lists and campaign materials, and even ahead of speeches. In addition, the legislation introduces the term “candidate affiliated with foreign agents” — a new label for candidates who receive funding from a recognized “agent” or through intermediaries.
The draft law also suggests banning foreign agents from carrying out activities that facilitate or hinder candidate nominations and achieving victory in the elections. This law could prove very easy to use, Melkonyants warns: “For example, if Navalny is recognized as an foreign-agent individual, he’ll simply be banned from distributing any information about the elections.”
The laws on campaigning online will affect parliamentary candidates directly: these grant Russia’s federal and regional election commissions the right to block websites or publications through Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) without a court order, if election officials find that they contain signs of illegal campaigning or violations of electoral legislation. These bills also encompass calls from bloggers to support a particular candidate or party. The authors behind this initiative envision that such publications from online media and blogs must be paid for by election funds, as with publications in traditional media. Violating the new laws will be punishable by fines up to 20,000 rubles (about $270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles (about $6,730) for legal entities.
“And if some blogger’s support is formalized, this will be [considered] illegal campaigning,” says lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein, who co-authored the legislation. While critics of the laws are concerned that now any information about a political party or candidate will be considered campaigning, Khinshtein calls this unfair: “Today, the Internet is a source of a large amount of information, for cities, sociology shows that people receive more information from the Internet than from traditional media. Consequently, the existence of a legal vacuum creates an absolutely absurd situation.”
These are the first large-scale restrictions on online campaigning in Russia: previously, the net was relatively free space, Golos co-chair Grigory Melkonyants underscores. “The law is aimed at large sites, the [Central Election Commission] and regional election commissions won’t have enough hands to catch individual users, they will respond to incoming complaints. Imagine some blogger who makes money from his blog on YouTube, who has a large audience, says something about the elections or backs someone. They will attempt to persecute such bloggers for illegal campaigning,” Melkonyants says.
The head of Alexey Navalny’s Moscow office, Oleg Stepanov, worries that the authorities might consider the Smart Vote initiative’s recommendations endorsing this or that candidate a form of illegal campaigning. He also believes the authorities will “fine major media and well-known bloggers.”
In addition, Stepanov thinks that Russian officials will attempt to use this law to block the Smart Vote website. “Blocking the Smart Vote site is an important task for the president’s administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hold separate meetings on this matter. Therefore, we are urging all [of our] supporters to register on the site now, in order to receive a letter with the candidate for their constituency,” he says.
Navalny’s team has no plans to scale back their activities after the adoption of the new laws. Oleg Stepanov says that a negative response from society could push the authorities to amend odious initiatives, or refrain from adopting these laws all together. “At one time, the authorities tried to introduce a registry of bloggers, for example, but they were forced to cancel [it] because the law provoked a negative reaction from society, was ignored, and wasn’t enforceable. For a long time ‘Dadin’s article’ didn’t work for the very same reason,” he recalls.
United Russia lawmaker Dmitry Vyatkin, the chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Civil Society Development, has also introduced amendments to the libel law that will limit freedom of speech ahead of the parliamentary elections, and affect candidates directly. Defamation committed online and in other public forums will now be punishable by up to two years in prison (previously, the penalty was just a fine or community service). Furthermore, the law stipulates five years in prison as punishment for libel “combined with” accusations of sexual offenses, or grave or especially grave crimes. Vyatkin declined to give Meduza a comment for this article, citing his busy schedule.
“Government officials and current deputies who will be criticized by parliamentary candidates will take offense and believe that they have been slandered. There will be a lot of offended people. But what’s a criminal case? In practice, it means immediate searches carried out at election campaign headquarters, confiscated equipment [and] campaign materials, that’s to say that the work of the campaign headquarters is blocked,” Melkonyants explains.
All of this will hamper the conduct of normal election campaigns both offline and on the Internet, even for those who are registered as candidates, Melkonyants acknowledges with regret. “Government-backed candidates don’t have move, they will do everything for them. But opposition candidates will have to run around, and for this they’ll need to avoid mines. And the mines are everywhere.”
Which laws will impact activists?
Campaigning for the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections was accompanied by mass protests in response to the authorities’ refusal to register opposition candidates. Since most of the demonstrations weren’t officially authorized, police officers violently dispersed the crowds. Conducting single-person pickets became popular among activists at the time — one after another, demonstrators took turns unfurling posters expressing their opposition. This protest tactic emerged not long beforehand, for example, in support of Meduza’s special correspondent Ivan Golunov, who was falsely arrested after police officers planted drugs on him earlier that summer.
Previously, single-person demonstrations weren’t considered mass public events and therefore, could be held without official permission. According to a new initiative from lawmaker Dmitry Vyatkin, however, “several persons alternately participating in picketing acts” is a public event — and that means this requires permission from the authorities. If election officials refuse to register opposition candidates in this year’s parliamentary race, it will be more difficult to conduct opposition protests in response. The new law also introduces a ban on rallies and pickets near emergency services buildings. And the authorities will be able to cancel public demonstrations due to the threat of an emergency or terrorist act.
The situation surrounding pickets is absurd, says journalist and Moscow City Duma deputy Ilya Azar, who is involved in organizing protests and regularly conducts solo pickets himself. “The FSB was so riled up [over] the thousand people who lined up around the Lubyanka building [the FSB headquarters in Moscow] in February 2020 that they decided to fight against single-person pickets more than mass events,” he maintains. “It’s understandable: United Russia doesn’t hold solo pickets, but has to at least formally observe the rules for conducting rallies. As a result, single-person pickets turned into ‘kamikazes’ [...] during sentencing hearings, at least 500 people can gather near the courts without permission, but any picket line ends with mass arrests of all of those daring to hold up a poster.”
Azar likens the law on pickets to a “smoking gun” in the hands of a “thief” — anyone found participating in a picket line has been arrested and fined since May 2020, though this law only came into being in December. “Then perhaps cancel all of the court decisions from May to December, if the picket line didn’t contradict law?” he suggests.
Coordinating picket lines with the authorities “kills the entire idea of a solo picket as an instant response to a specific development or misdeed from the authorities,” Azar continues. “The authorities want spontaneous opposition to look just like this: for a person to go out with a poster near his home without communicating his intentions to anyone or anywhere, and roll up the poster within 10 minutes without posting photos of his action anywhere.”
Elections are impossible without freedom of assembly, Grigory Melkonyants says. “Citizens ought to have the opportunity to express their position, including, in this way. And according to the new law, the authorities can even cancel authorized events. In addition, rallies are effectively equated with election campaigning — you need to open a bank account, and report on who transferred the money and what you spent it on. And foreign funding is banned.”
Navalny’s non-profit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has already been designated a foreign agent because of a “Spanish sponsor.” And in 2019, the Russian Justice Ministry deemed the civic organization League of Voters a foreign agent over a 230-ruble ($3) transfer from a Moldovan citizen. “In essence, this is a ban on holding rallies — any rally can be made into a ‘foreign agent’ rally at will. This is a serious blow to the legitimacy of the elections,” Melkonyants says.
“If riots break out, then all these laws will be useless. Popular anger will sweep away all the laws along with the ruling party,” says KPRF lawmaker Vera Ganzya.
Which laws will affect election monitors?
According to another new law — introduced by senator Andrey Klimov, the chairman of the Federation Council’s State Sovereignty Protection Committee, and adopted in its first reading — Russia will now have seven separate classifications for foreign agents. And all of them will face further limitations on participation in everything election-related, Grigory Melkonyants underscores.
“As a result, NGOs and civil society organizations will not be able to participate in elections in any form — neither as observers, nor as analysts. This can also be extended to citizens — foreign-agent individuals — [and] to associations that aren’t legal entities, like Facebook groups. Golos’s activities will be effectively banned, and a large number of active individuals will, in all likelihood, be designated as agents,” Melkonyants predicts. In his opinion, large organizations that conduct election monitoring are likely to be destroyed, and citizens will only be able to gather in less-formal, small associations, and self-organize.
The so-called law on educational activities will also impact election monitoring, Melkonyants says. These amendments, which were also introduced by senators from the State Sovereignty Protection Committee, have been adopted in their first reading so far.
The bill defines educational activities (prosvetitelsky deyatelnosti) as “activities carried out outside the framework of educational programs, aimed at the dissemination of knowledge, abilities, skills, and values,” for professional, creative, or intellectual development. The senators are proposing that all such activities be coordinated with the authorities, on the grounds that this is necessary to prevent interference from “anti-Russian forces.”
“Lectures for training observers, methodological materials, brochures — everything falls under this law. All of these activities will have to be approved by the government. This could be a blow to training observers in 2021,” Melkonyants warns.
Making such decisions concerning election monitoring is an act of self-delusion, he continues. “The people who are headlining all of these changes and promoting them are proving themselves. It’s important to them that the threat looks real, so they themselves create imaginary threats. This was the case with Golos. They filmed fake videos, made fake reports and training manuals for observers, in which we allegedly wrote ‘Organize provocations! Disrupt the elections!’ And they showed this on Perviy Kanal and other [television] channels. And this, among other things, became the pretext for the appearance of these laws.”
In Melkonyants’s opinion, the people talking about imaginary threats are actually interested in acquiring funding and resources to defend against these threats: “And those at the top are starting to believe that there really are spies all around and they’re giving the go-ahead for any decision, just to keep themselves in power. Those at the top are so out of touch with reality that they think that it’s all already here, that NATO troops are at the gate.”
“United Russia doesn’t even have 30 percent [of the vote], that’s an inflated figure. Without manipulation, without powerful administrative pressure, without provocations against any type of opposition, United Russia will never gain votes. But they’ve been presented with the task [of winning] 70 percent! This is impossible,” says Communist Party deputy Vera Ganzya. “Therefore, they are preparing to carry out fraudulent elections and are mortally afraid that manipulations and administrative pressure will provoke popular unrest and powerful opposition. They’ve got their eyes on Khabarovsk and Belarus, as well as Moldova, where the opposition candidate won unexpectedly.”
Translated by Eilish Hart