At the end of 2020, the State Duma returned to the “mad printer” mode. To make life as difficult as possible for the opposition in the 2021 elections
On December 24, the State Duma closed the autumn session, the last weeks of which the deputies worked in the “mad printer” mode, which had managed to forget a little. In an accelerated mode, the parliamentarians introduced and managed to adopt – at least in the first reading – an array of bills that seriously tightened the laws on “foreign agents”, holding mass events, online campaigning and educational activities. Initiatives, as a rule, were submitted by United Russia deputies, sometimes colleagues from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and “Fair Russia” joined them. A huge number of new laws and amendments will in one way or another affect the elections to the State Duma, which are to be held in 2021: now it will be much more difficult for opposition parties to nominate candidates, engage in campaigning, organize mass rallies and monitor the integrity of elections, politicians and experts say.
Why did the Kremlin decide to hastily tighten the legislation?
As Meduza previously reported , the prohibitive bills the parliament was considering at the end of 2020 is the Kremlin’s response to what it sees as foreign interference in the State Duma elections.
“The siloviki are actively instilling in the president that the West is interfering in our elections, so this campaign is almost a war, it’s not even an internal policy – a foreign one,” one United Russia member told Meduza. A person close to the leadership of the State Duma apparatus now confirms that new laws are being developed and adopted on the eve of parliamentary elections: “So that everything goes smoothly, without unnecessary noise.”
“Of course, they will try to interfere, they do this all the time, and not only in our elections – practically all over the world. This is a global policy, both bases around the world and intervention around the world. We know this, we are preparing for this. But we will be able to resist this effectively only if the overwhelming majority of our citizens understand that: a) this is interference and b) we are obliged to resist this, that this is unacceptable, that we ourselves must determine our own destiny, ”he said in December at the annual press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For example, the Kremlin considers Smart Voting by Alexei Navalny, any seminars for observers or educational events on political topics to be instruments of foreign influence : according to one of Meduza’s interlocutors close to the Presidential Administration (AP), they create a “general background of discontent ”, As well as critical publications addressed to the officials and deputies of United Russia in social networks.
The State Duma passed dozens of new laws in a terrible hurry. According to the State Duma deputy from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Vera Ganzya, the deputies did not even have time to read many new documents. “To pass laws that have a serious impact on the internal political life of the country, they need to be thoroughly discussed. And in our country some of the laws were adopted in three readings within one day, – Ganzia is indignant. – These laws were adopted hastily under the pretext of protecting the country’s political life from the influence of foreign states, but under a plausible pretext, the authorities are trying to finish off the last remnants of the opposition in the country. The State Duma of the seventh convocation will go down in history as the most reactionary Duma since the beginning of Russian parliamentarism. “
“The end of the year is such a time that you need to have time to do what you didn’t manage to do during the year. It seems to me that this is a common occurrence for everyone, not only for public service, but also for private business. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m used to saying that I know, ”explains Alexander Khinshtein, co-author of several new documents, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, United Russia party, explains the shaft of new laws.
The authorities are trying to compensate for the drop in the rating of United Russia with new large-scale restrictions and bans, said Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the Golos movement. The elections will be held under martial law, and the main characters will be “foreign agents”, who can now become individuals, that is, absolutely any citizens.
“I think the phrase“ foreign agents ”will become the main one in the parliamentary elections. It will be presented as interference – this will be a propaganda campaign, ”predicts Melkonyants.
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What laws apply to candidates for the State Duma?
At the end of 2020, a whole package of bills was submitted to the State Duma, expanding the concept of a “foreign agent” and introducing new bans and fines for them. The State Duma adopted the law, which allows individuals to be recognized as “foreign agents” and enter them in a special register, in three readings, and the Federation Council also supported it .
The deputies proposed to recognize people who are engaged in political activities or collecting military-technical information and receive funds from abroad as “foreign agents”.
As a development of this law, the State Duma recently adopted in the first reading another document , according to which, if a person recognized as an “agent” runs for elective office, he becomes a “foreign agent” candidate. He is obliged to indicate this information in his signature lists and campaigning and even before performances. In addition, the law introduces the term “candidate affiliated with foreign agents” – this status is granted to the candidate in case of receiving funding from the “agent” directly or through intermediaries.
The document also proposes to prohibit “foreign agents” from engaging in activities that facilitate or hinder the nomination of candidates and the achievement of victory in elections. They will be able to use this law very simply, Melkonyants says: “For example, if Navalny is recognized as a natural person – a ‘foreign agent’, he will simply be prohibited from disseminating any information about the elections.”
The laws on campaigning on the Internet directly concern candidates to the State Duma : they give the CEC and regional election commissions through Roskomnadzor the right to block websites or publications without trial if the commissions saw signs of illegal campaigning or violations of electoral legislation in them. The documents will also include calls from bloggers to support a particular candidate or party. As conceived by the authors of the initiatives, such publications in online media and blogs should be paid from electoral funds, in the same way as it happens with publications in traditional media. For violation of the new laws, fines will be imposed – up to 20 thousand rubles for citizens and up to 500 thousand rubles for officials.
“And if some blogger’s support is formalized, it will be illegal campaigning,” says the co-author of these laws, MP Khinstein. The accusations that now any information about a party or candidate will be considered campaigning, he calls unfair: “The Internet today is a source of large amounts of information, for cities sociology shows that people get 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 campaigning on the Internet: before, the network was a relatively free space, says Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of Golos. “The law is aimed at large platforms, the CEC and regional election commissions will not have enough hands to catch individual users, they will respond to incoming complaints. Imagine some blogger who makes money by blogging on YouTube, who has a large audience, says something about elections or supports someone. And they will try to attract such bloggers for illegal campaigning, ”says Melkonyants.
For example, the authorities may refer to illegal campaigning as the recommendations of Alexei Navalny’s “Smart Vote” to support one or another candidate for the State Duma, fears the head of Navalny’s Moscow headquarters Oleg Stepanov. The authorities will “fine the big media and famous bloggers,” he said.
In addition, the head of Navalny’s headquarters believes that using this law, the authorities will try to block the Smart Voting website. “Blocking the Smart Voting website is an important task for the presidential administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have separate meetings on this matter. Therefore, we urge all supporters to register on the site now in order to receive a letter with a candidate in the required constituency, ”he says.
They are not going to wind down activities at Navalny’s headquarters after the adoption of new laws. Oleg Stepanov says that if society reacts negatively, the government will amend odious initiatives, or in fact these laws will not be applied. “At one time, the authorities tried to introduce, for example, a register of bloggers, but were forced to cancel, because the law caused a negative reaction from society, was ignored and was unenforceable. For the same reason, the “Dada” article did not work for a long time , ”he recalls.
Another law that will restrict freedom of speech on the Internet before elections and will directly affect candidates is the amendments made by the chairman of the State Duma Committee for the Development of Civil Society, United Russia member Dmitry Vyatkin, on libel . For spreading slander on the Internet and other public sources, they will now be imprisoned for two years (previously there were only fines or compulsory work). If libel is combined with charges of committing a crime against sexual inviolability and sexual freedom of the person or a grave or especially grave crime, it will be possible to sit for five years. Vyatkin declined to comment to Meduza, citing his busy schedule.
“Officials and current deputies who will be criticized by the candidates will be offended and believe that they have been slandered. There will be a lot of offended people. What is a criminal case? In practice, this means that searches are immediately carried out in election headquarters, equipment and campaign materials are seized, that is, the work of the headquarters is blocked, ”explains Melkonyants.
All this will hinder the conduct of a normal election campaign both offline and on the Internet, even for those who will be registered, Melkonyants regretfully admits. “The candidates from the government do not need to move, they will do everything for them. And opposition candidates will have to run around, and for this they need to bypass mines. And mines are everywhere. “
NEW BANS – POINT BY POINT
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What laws apply to activists?
The 2019 campaign in the Moscow City Duma was accompanied by massive protests against the refusal to register opposition candidates. Most of the actions were not coordinated with the authorities, so the police brutally dispersed their participants. Then the format of a single picket became popular among activists, the participants of which took turns unfolding posters – such actions, for example, not long before that took place in support of the special correspondent of Meduza Ivan Golunov, whom the police planted drugs on.
Previously, single pickets were not considered a public mass event and therefore did not require approval. According to the new initiative of the deputy Vyatkin, “the alternate participation of several persons in picketing acts” is a public event, which means that it requires approval from the authorities. The authorities may deny registration to opposition candidates and in the elections to the State Duma, but protests in this regard will be much more difficult. The new law introduces a ban on rallies and pickets near emergency buildings. The authorities will also be able to cancel public actions due to the threat of an emergency or terrorism.
There is absurdity going on with pickets, says journalist and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Azar, who participated in organizing protest actions and himself regularly went to single pickets. “The FSB was so enraged that in February 2020, a thousand people lined up around the building on the Lubyanka that they decided to fight single pickets in the forest more than mass events,” he says. – It is understandable: “United Russia” does not hold single pickets, and the rules for holding rallies must also at least formally observe. As a result, single picketers turned into “kamikaze”: against the amendments on Pushkinskaya street or during sentences, at least 500 people can gather uncoordinatedly at the courts, and any picket line ends with mass arrests of all those who dared to raise a poster. “
Azar calls the law on pickets “a burning hat on the head of a thief”: for participation in a “picket line” everyone has been fined and arrested since May 2020, although this became legal only in December: “Maybe then all court decisions from May to December, if the picket line did not contradict the law? “
The coordination of a “picket line” with the authorities, Azar says, “kills the whole idea of a single picket as an instant response to a specific event or atrocity of the authorities.” “The authorities want a spontaneous protest to look just like this: a person, without informing anyone and anywhere about his intention, went out with a poster near his house and ten minutes later rolled up the poster, without uploading photos of his act anywhere.”
Elections are impossible without freedom of assembly, says Melkonyants: “Citizens should be able to express their position, including in this form. And under the new laws, the authorities will be able to cancel even agreed events. In addition, in fact, rallies are equated to an election campaign – you need to open a bank account, report on who transferred the money, what you spent it on. And foreign funding is prohibited. “
The Navalny Foundation has already been recognized as an “agent” because of the story with the “Spanish sponsor FBK” , and the Ministry of Justice recognized the ” League of Voters” as a “foreign agent” for transferring 230 rubles from a citizen of Moldova in 2019. “In essence, this is a ban on holding rallies – any rally, if desired, can be made a rally of ‘foreign agents’. This is a serious blow to the legitimacy of the elections, ”says the co-chairman of the Golos movement.
“If riots break out, all these laws will be useless. Popular anger will sweep away all laws along with the ruling party, ”said the communist Ganzia.
What laws apply to observers?
According to one of the laws concerning “agents”, which was introduced by the chairman of the Federation Council commission for the protection of sovereignty and prevention of interference in the internal affairs of Russia, Andrey Klimov, and adopted in the first reading, seven types of “foreign agents” will appear in the country. Their participation in everything related to the elections will be further limited, said Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of Golos.
“As a result, NGOs and public organizations will not be able to participate in the elections in any form, either as observers or analysts. This can be extended to citizens – individuals – “foreign agents”, to associations without the formation of a legal entity – such as groups on Facebook. The activities of Golos will actually be banned, they will most likely turn a large number of active individuals into agents, ”Melkonyants predicts. In his opinion, large organizations that monitor elections are likely to be destroyed, and citizens will only be able to gather in less formal small associations and organize themselves.
The so-called law on educational activities also applies to election observers , Melkonyants said. These amendments have also been adopted in the first reading so far and have also been introduced by senators from the Federation Council Commission for the Protection of Sovereignty.
Parliamentarians propose to understand educational activities as “activities carried out outside the framework of educational programs aimed at disseminating knowledge, skills, attitudes and values” for professional, creative or intellectual development. Senators propose to allow such activities only with the consent of the authorities, because, in their opinion, without regulation by the state, “anti-Russian forces” interfere in such activities.
“Lectures on training observers, methodological materials, brochures – everything falls under this law. All these activities will have to be approved by the government. This could be a blow to the training of observers in 2021, ”says Melkonyants.
He calls it “self-mystification” for the authorities to make such decisions with regard to election observers: “The people who are headlining and promoting all these changes prove their worth. It is important for them that the threat looks real, so they themselves create imaginary threats. This was the case with the Voice . They filmed fake videos, made fake reports and manuals for observers, which we allegedly write in them: “Arrange provocations! Disrupt the elections! “And they all showed it on the First and other channels. And this became, among other things, a prerequisite for all these laws to appear ”.
In his opinion, people interested in obtaining money and resources to defend against these threats speak about imaginary threats: “And the top begins to believe that there are really spies around here, and gives signals for any decisions, just to stay in power. The gap from reality at the top is such that they think that everything is already there, NATO troops are at the gates. “
“United Russia doesn’t even have 30% [of the vote], this is an exaggerated figure. Without machinations, without the most powerful administrative pressure, without provocations against the opposition of any direction, United Russia will never gain votes, but they were given the task – 70%! This is impossible, – believes Vera Ganzia, a deputy from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, – so they are preparing for the elections to be falsified, and they are mortally afraid that machinations and administrative pressure will cause popular unrest and a powerful protest. Before their eyes they see Khabarovsk and Belarus, as well as Moldova, where the opposition candidate unexpectedly won. “