Secret services’ new mandate puts icing on the cake of Russia’s decade-long crackdown on basic freedoms

Publish date: July 12, 2010

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

Ten years after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) failed miserably to win its case against Alexander Nikitin – the former naval officer persecuted for his help writing Bellona’s report on radioactive contamination on the Kola Peninsula – the KGB successor organisation is back with a vengeance – forcing a bill through the Russian legislature that will expand considerably its authority and make intimidation of journalists, political dissenters, and environmentalists, or indeed anyone, a matter of whim in a new Russia.

In 1996, Alexander Nikitin, now head of Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona, was arrested and charged with high treason and espionage for what the FSB said was “divulging state secrets in Bellona’s materials” – charges that carried 20 years in prison, if not the death penalty. Five years of arduous legal battle follow, and on April 17, 2000 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation fully acquits Nikitin of all charges, setting a lone precedent for the first – and so far, alas, only – case in the Soviet and then Russian justice system that has seen an innocent man beat the FSB in court. That same year, in his traditional New Year’s address, President Boris Yeltsin resigns and hands the reigns of power over to his prime minister and ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin.

Fast-forward ten years. On April 24, the Russian government, headed by Putin – who has since served two four-year terms as president and is back in his prime minister’s seat – asks the lower house of the Russian Parliament, the State Duma, to consider a bill entitled “On introducing amendments to the Federal Law ‘On the Federal Security Service’ and to the Administrative Offence Code of the Russian Federation.” The bill, which envisions a drastic expansion of the FSB’s mandate, is touted by the government as a necessary means to combat extremism and counter the “rising radical sentiments in Russian society.” In a new, post-Yeltsin Russia, what it most likely means in practice is using law enforcement to intimidate and harass political opposition.

In early summer, as Bellona in Oslo marks the ten-year anniversary of Nikitin’s acquittal by establishing the Nikitin Foundation to facilitate environmental rights projects and by conducting a symposium to take the temperature on the current human rights situation in Russia – re-assessing if it is still possible to nudge Russia toward democratic reforms, a respect for basic freedoms, and the rule of law – Russian legislators on June 11 pass the new FSB bill in its first reading.

What the bill is really about

The main problem with the new bill is the article entitled “Special preventative measures to be used by the bodies of the Federal Security Service.” The article states that the FSB is free to use such measures with regard to such activities carried out by any physical persons or legal entities that have not yet exceeded the boundaries of law, but may, in the secret service’s view, represent a threat to Russia’s security. Private citizens will in such cases be issued “citations,” and as for legal entities, “special preventative measures” imply an “official warning” from the FSB.

The deadlines to comply with “official warnings” remain unclear in the bill. What is more troubling, so do potential reasons or substantiations for the FSB to issue such warnings – the probable cause that might warrant this measure. The language is considerably more precise on the responsibility placed on private citizens or organisations for actions that do not constitute violations of law.

According to the newly proposed language to be introduced into the Administrative Offence Code, “failure to comply with a lawful instruction or order by an officer of the FSB” will result in a fine of between RUR 500 ($16) and RUR 1,000 ($32) or an arrest of up to 15 days for citizens, a fine of between RUR 1,000 and RUR 3,000 ($96.5) for officials, and a fine or between RUR 10,000 ($322) and 50,000 ($1,609) for legal entities.

An explanatory memorandum attached to the bill states that “Certain mass media outlets, both print and electronic ones, openly facilitate in the shaping of negative processes in the spiritual domain, the establishment of a cult of individualism and violence, and the disbelief in the state’s ability to protect its citizens, essentially involving the youth in extremist activities.” How exactly mass media are supposed to be doing this is anyone’s guess, but using their newly expanded license, anyone in the FSB will have all the power they need to make a journalist or editor obey their orders, just wielding the threat of a fine or a fifteen-day detention. Moreover, the FSB will have the authority to issue a halt order on publications they deem inadvisable, though such publications may not contain any materials whatsoever that would constitute state secrets.

There is no doubt as to what these measures are hoped to achieve. This has nothing to do with combating terrorism or extremism, but everything to do with intensifying the state’s continuing attacks on independent thinking and political dissent and persecuting people involved in opposition politics. These measures will obligingly help make the secret services even less transparent and less accountable than they already are and provide ample grounds for broad, if not arbitrary, interpretations of the notion of “extremist activities,” making all that more legitimate the already established practice of banning any “questionable” rallies, meetings, and pickets. In these circumstances, Putin’s bill will simply give the secret services an almost unlimited license for lawlessness and runaway abuse of power.

The bill has already prompted vehement protests from human rights advocates and independent politicians. The opposition party Yabloko has initiated a signature campaign to stop the law passing.

“The grounds [provided] for issuing a warning are so vague that any action at all may, if one so desired, be declared as ‘actuating the occurrence of causes and creating conditions for commission of crimes.’ Moreover, there are no provisions for a procedure to appeal a citation in court. The bill will be unable to stop potential terrorists. Its goal is to facilitate preventative repressions against the opposition,” a statement issued by Yabloko said.

The slippery slope

Those in the legal profession voice their concerns as well, with some of Russia’s brightest legal minds warning against the disastrous slippery slope the proposed legislation will likely lead the country onto.

According to an expert opinion written by the famous jurist Sergei Pashin, professor at the Russian Higher School of Economics, the bill expands unlawfully the FSB’s purview by affording it the same authority as vested in bodies of state prosecution. It is unacceptable, says Pashin, to enable agencies of executive power to “warn and censure [potential] offenders.” Furthermore, says Pashin, it is “unacceptable and dangerous to ignore the procedural form, [and] to substitute undisclosed operations-related techniques for comprehensive detection of causes and conditions contributing to the commission of crimes.”

Finally, according to Pashin, the bill is unconstitutional as it denies persons and organisations who might be affected by its provisions the right to appeal citations and warnings in court; violates citizens’ right to freedom and to security of person – if summoned by the FSB to appear for issuance of a citation where no criminal case bears relevance; and imposes responsibility – a “black spot” of sorts – and obligations where no infractions have been committed.

“What is going on, essentially, is reviving the infamous erstwhile practice of persecuting people for undesirable statements, ‘seditious behaviour,’ ‘bare intent,’” says Pashin.

Passing a bill that will so openly resurrect Stalinist traditions is nothing short of the state directly assaulting its citizens’ rights and freedoms – or what is left of them anyway. The ten years that have passed since Nikitin’s acquittal have been a period during which numerous other researchers, journalists, activists, and environmentalists have been brought up on various charges aimed to quash potential dissent, or convicted, despite the hopeful outcome of Nikitin’s trial.

And this trend seems to have well transcended the political domain, with the broad offensive against “extremism” now targeting provocative art as well. In June, in one of at least two ongoing criminal cases, state prosecution sought three years in prison for two art show organisers charged with “debasing the religious beliefs of citizens and inciting religious hatred” (in early July the men, whose exhibit intended to raise the issue of censorship in Russia, were fined RUR 350,000 ($11,300) for displaying such works of art as Jesus Christ with the head of Mickey Mouse). This flashback on the Soviet era was most pronounced on July 9, when authorities arranged to trade the nuclear weapons expert Igor Sutyagin, who served 11 years for sharing publicly available information, for ten US-based sleeper agents – but not before forcing him to sign a confession of guilt in exchange for freedom and a life in exile.

Russia has taken all steps possible to be able to turn its citizens into sitting ducks for “measures” against “potential extremism.” If the new bill is not stopped today, tomorrow one single utterance that has rubbed the authorities the wrong way will be enough to declare a person “enemy of the state” – making the return of 1937 a horrifyingly likely prospect indeed.