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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.