Russia’s Futile Extremist Law

This week, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved the first reading of a bill designed to restrict the rights of people associated with groups officially designated as ‘extremist’. As described by Meduza:

“According to the draft law, former “leaders” of terrorist or extremist groups will be banned from running for parliament for a five-year period after said organization is outlawed officially. For an organization’s regular employees, as well as “other persons involved in its activities,” the ban on being elected to parliament will last for three years.

What’s more, anyone who led an outlawed organization in the three years before it was blacklisted could be deprived of the right to be elected to the State Duma. Anyone who supported or worked for an outlawed organization one year before the ban could face the same penalty. In other words, the legislation is meant to have retroactive effect.”

Unsurprisingly, this law has engendered some hostile criticism from those who see it is proof that the Russian state is moving away from ‘soft authoritarism’ towards something closer to ‘hard authoritarianism’. I share the general lack of enthusiasm, and regard the law as definitely a step in an undemocratic direction. Beyond that, I also consider it completely pointless. My logic is as follows:

  1. The law in effect allows the executive branch of government to prevent anybody it so wishes from standing for election, simply by declaring the organization to which they belong as ‘extremist’. This is not a power one would wish the executive in any society to have.
  2. Why not? First, because it’s arguably contrary to democratic values in and of itself. Second, because the power is likely to be used arbitrarily. In Russia’s case, it seems to be directed against opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which the Russian state is attempting to label as ‘extremist’. But why FBK? Why not any number of other political groups who one might think much more properly fit the ‘extremist’ label? Why not the Rodina party, or Zhirinovsky’s LDPR? Or others? The reason seems to be that the Russian state doesn’t object to those, whereas it does object to Navalny. That’s not good reasoning.
  3. The only check on this is judicial review of the ‘extremist’ label, but there is an understandable lack of confidence in the Russian courts’ political independence.
  4. It’s completely unnecessary. No ‘extremist’ organization – including Navalny and his team – is in a position to win seats in parliamentary elections. The law seems to be directed against a threat which doesn’t exist.
  5. It’s counterproductive. The primary reason for considering Navalny and co. ‘extremist’ is their choice of tactics – street demonstrations. But there’s a reason why they resort to those – they feel that there is little point in using normal methods of political struggle via elections. It was rather similar in the late Imperial period – liberal oppositionists became more and more radical because the government restricted alternative modes of political engagement. By banning groups from participating in elections, you leave them no choice but to engage in street protest, seek support from foreign governments, etc. The way to de-radicalize them is to make electoral politics meaningful. This legislation does the opposite.

So, all in all, this legislation takes Russia in the wrong direction, in my opinion. How far in that direction remains to seen. Much will depend on how it will be implemented. But even if the Russian state chooses not to list large numbers of groups as ‘extremist’, thereby limiting this laws scope, the very threat of such labelling could have a chilling effect on opposition activity. All in all, a bad week for Russian democracy.

13 thoughts on “Russia’s Futile Extremist Law”

  1. In the case of Navalny, Russia would be better to sanction political parties that accept foreign funding intended to subvert the Russian state.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point. Because money-tracking is a factual criterion. As opposed to being “extremist” which is a somewhat subjective opinion.

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  2. > RBK

    That should be “FBK”, the first word being “Fond/Foundation”.

    > but there is an understandable lack of confidence in the Russian courts’ political independence.

    Speaking of which, do you think there’s any country at all that has actual, real political independence of courts?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “This week, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved the first reading of a bill designed to restrict the rights of people associated with groups officially designated as ‘extremist’. As described by Meduza:”

    Blah! Blah! Blah!

    Keep coddling that hypocritically one-sided BS. Another example:

    https://www.rt.com/russia/524301-lavrov-blinken-constructive-dialogue/

    Some things happened beforehand which served to create a tit for tat action. It wasn’t Russia which started it. Not that I’m comfortable with the the tit for tat approach

    Like the US government is better with its unsubstantiated claims that org x and person y are part of a sinister conspiracy and are therefore sanctioned, with Americans dealing with them being subject to penalty.

    Once again, **** Meduza and those who regularly prop, it while censoring some quality sources.

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  4. Can I indulge in some whataboutism, my favorite pastime?

    I haven’t read the new law, but from what I get from the post, it seems nowhere near as ‘hard’ as the ‘providing material support for terrorism’ provision of the US ‘Patriot Act’. That one is actually a criminal offense.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Providing_material_support_for_terrorism

    Check out, for example, the cases of The Holy Land Foundation and Dr. Sami Al-Arian, tenured professor at the University of South Florida.

    The ban on getting elected for three years seems amazingly soft, actually.

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  5. It strikes me that while professor is very observant on international relationships of Russia, he is not very on internal relationships of its political elements. Recent disclosure of information of foreign involvement in Russia politics and society indicates that the government does not and in fact engage in protecting democracy in country nearly enough and remains rather passive and dismissive towards threats to its sovereignty.

    1. Apparently the process of uncovering extremists by law is not a simple ordeal because it hasn’t been done much in that direction for years.
    2. Note that there’s a difference between declaring organisation “extremist” and proclaiming them “terrorists” there and on the spot. In that regard, Russia can give a head start to most other “democratic governments” of the world.
    4. This is a particularly misleading – the law does not forbid them to win seats (which of course is still a realistic possibility), it forbids the participation, which of course has no other purpose but to disrupt those elections and meddle with democracy from outside.
    5. The reason why FBK is resorting to street demonstration, civil disobedience and violence is not that they are barred from other methods, that is a straight lie. They are engaging in extremist activity because they refuse to do anything else, it is their sole reason of existence – to cover up any direct attempts to overthrow government and power in the country. If it’s not enough, it has been failing it’s policies, engaging in fraudulent activity and scurrying from th law enforcement with a surprising agility (mostly to overseas). Their roof is leaking.

    All in all, critics of such laws constantly fluctuate between two positions – on one hand, they argue that such law is severe and too restrictive for democracy. OTOH, they also claim that it has little effect due to corruption, redundancy and inefficiency. Most of the liberal opposition isn’t capable of making out any difference between that exact law and any other law in Russia they have little incentive to obey. If such beacons of democracy like BBC or DW and their subsidiaries inside country simultaneously flare up with outrage, we can know we do it right.

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  6. Thank you for your post; I agree that this isn’t a good move. Just a small point on Navalny, which slightly follows on from the previous comment: it’s my understanding that he would deliberately ensure that his demonstrations were illegal, by not using officially-notified and -approved routes and locations, but other ones. The result was that the police would then crack down on them, simultaneously a) generating the images of ‘repression’ which boosted Navalny’s moral and other support in and from the West; b) angering and inflaming the passions of those who were repressed, and their families. In practical terms, this meant that he was choosing to send people – often very young people – into harm’s way, in order to achieve his own political ends. Is that also other people’s understanding? Anyway – thank you for you post.

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    1. That is a tactic we have often used in Sweden too, with the intention not to accept police interference with demonstration planning.

      Or in Finland for that matter. The association Lisää Kaupunkia Helsinkiin (More City in Helsinki) made a bike demonstration in a cars-only city highway to highlight that cities should not have highways but only streets. The polica cracked down at it, but the European Court decided that the right to political expression beats traffic regulations, and that the demo was legal.

      Which caused lots of debate in Helsinki and finally contributed to a city hall decision to abolish all the highways and substitute them with boulevards.

      So there may be rational causes of not accepting police-decided demonstration routes.

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  7. Вы маленько лукавите, вводите в заблуждение читателей, которые не желают прояснять некоторые вопросы для себя. Что такое экстремизм?
    Вот что говорит википедия:
    Экстреми́зм (от лат. extremus — «крайний, чрезмерный») — приверженность крайним взглядам, методам действий (обычно в политике)[1]. Экстремизму подвержены как отдельные люди, так и организации, преимущественно политические и религиозные. Среди политических экстремистских действий можно отметить провокацию беспорядков[2], террористические акции, ведение партизанской войны.
    Т е… ЛДПР, РОДИНА не является экстремисткими потому, что они не провоцируют беспорядки. И Навальный мог жить, поживать, войти в госдуму и даже иметь успех, но… он предпочел провоцировать беспорядки и всячески позорить действующую власть.

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