In Russia, a 'Generalized Climate of Fear'

A rash of new laws have made things even tougher for the country's dissidents.
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Police detain a gay rights activist during a Gay Pride event in St. Petersburg on June 29, 2013. (Reuters)

It's not a great time to be a freethinker in Russia.

Offending somebody's religious sensibilities could get you prosecuted according to legislation signed this weekend by President Vladimir Putin. Criticizing the wrong person with a snarky comment on a social network could run afoul of a vaguely worded law criminalizing online defamation.

And lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists need to be mindful of a newly enacted federal law prohibiting "homosexual propaganda" as well as similar legislation enacted in many Russian regions.

And pretty soon, criticizing those who fought against Nazi Germany could be a crime punishable with stiff fines and jail terms.

The Democracy ReportThe recent spate of legislation has fostered a big intellectual chill and created what the Council of Europe, in a recent report, called a "generalized climate of fear" across the country.

"Over the last year we have seen a broad-scale operation that includes a whole package of so-called laws from the Duma under which anyone can be arrested," Viktor Krasin, a Soviet-era dissident who is now a human rights activist, says.

"They have done a remarkable thing -- now you can be accused of slandering the authorities, of inciting enmity. This is just the same as the Stalin- and Khrushchev-era [anti-Soviet] laws but with just different formulations."

The most recent example is a new bill introduced into the State Duma by Irina Yarovaya of the ruling United Russia party.

According to the bill, which will be be debated in the autumn, anyone using an official position or the media to disseminate "obvious falsehoods" about the activities of the armies of the anti-Nazi coalition, accusing them of committing crimes, or "artificially creating evidence for accusations" could face a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($15,151) and up to five years in prison.

On June 26, the media-freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement opposing the bill, saying that "the public has the right to be informed about matters of concern, including on differing views on any historical debate."

While in the Soviet era, the locus of such repression of dissent was the KGB, under President Vladimir Putin it is the Investigative Committee, headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin.

In April, internationally respected economist Sergei Guriyev fled to Paris after investigators searched his office and seized his e-mails.

The investigation seems to stem from an expert evaluation Guriyev wrote for the presidential human rights council condemning the second conviction of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Other experts who contributed to the rights council's report have also come under scrutiny from the Investigative Committee. Most recently, on June 24, Bastrykin's investigators summoned Tamara Morshchakova, former chairwoman of the Constitutional Court and one of the drafters of the Russian Constitution.

Writing in Vedomosti, economist Mikhail Dmitriyev described the so-called experts affair as "a turning point" after which dissent is criminally punished even if it is not accompanied by political action.

Russia's social conflict, Dmitriyev writes, has now pitted the ruling class against the intelligentsia as a whole.

In the city of Perm, art critic Marat Gelman is another intellectual who has gotten caught in the cross fire. Gelman had big dreams of turning the Urals city into an international cultural center on the model of Bilbao, Spain.

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