Putin Faces a Tough Choice Over an Anti-Terrorism Bill

5 MINS READJun 30, 2016 | 03:01 GMT
Putin Faces a Tough Choice Over Anti-Terrorism Laws
Riot police last year at a march in Moscow in memory of assassinated Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov. Among other things, Russia's anti-terrorism law would criminalize public incitement of unrest.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The upper house of Russia's parliament approved an anti-terrorism bill on Wednesday that, while stripped of its toughest proposals, is still being called some of the most repressive legislation since Soviet times. The bill went so far that even Vladimir Putin loyalists are pushing back on the legislation, an unheard of development. The Russian president must now decide whether to sign the bill into law.

Known as the Spring Package or Yarovaya Law, the new legislation covers a swath of activities. If approved by Putin, the legislation would make public incitement of unrest, armed rebellions and terrorist activity in mass media or online a criminal offense starting July 20. Moreover, those with knowledge of these activities who fail to report them would face imprisonment. Financing of these activities would be a federal crime. Any terrorist attack or financing of an attack abroad that injures or kills a Russian would be subject to prosecution in Russia. Religious activities defined by the government as "missionary work" would be off limits except in areas selected and monitored by the government.

Russian mobile phone and internet operators would be required to store their users' data (texts, calls and online mobile activity) for up to three years for the government to access. Any online service (social network, email client, website or messenger app) that uses encrypted data would be required to help the Federal Security Service — the successor to the KGB — decipher the messages. Authorities also would have wider definitions of "criminal activity" online, and the age of criminal liability would be lowered to 14.

Even merely discussing unrest, protests, color revolutions and terrorism online — or not reporting such things — would become criminal offenses. As an editorial in independent news outlet Meduza put it, the law would mean "you're either an investigator or a criminal." In short, the measures would represent the revival of the police state.

Ultra-conservative United Russia lawmaker Irina Yarovaya — who previously led the initiatives to criminalize homosexuality, allow police to fire on crowds and restrict foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations — spearheaded the measures. Yarovaya pushed through the current controversial bill in just a week, playing off fears of increased terrorist activity around the world and of the 2014 events in Ukraine, claiming similar instability was coming to Russia.

The Kremlin has different fears. Its main concerns relate to unrest stemming from the stagnant economy and parliamentary elections coming in September. Kremlin manipulation of the previous parliamentary elections sparked nationwide protests. Economic and political tensions are even higher going into these elections, and it is not clear that the ruling United Russia party can maintain its majority in the lower house of parliament. This election is seen as a test of Putin's chances of winning a fourth presidential term in 2018, giving the Kremlin a good reason to position itself to adjust the election results and stave off any backlash. The new legislation would provide the iron fist the Kremlin needs. But the Kremlin may not have anticipated the backlash that the bill's passage would spark from across the political and business spectrum.

In something rarely seen in Russia, pro-Kremlin politicians, activists and legislators have come out against the hastily passed bill. Many within the communications ministry asked for the legislation to be held until it was examined more deeply. The former president of the republic of Tatarstan and a current state adviser, Mintimer Shaimiev, publicly opposed the bill. And despite the fact that Russia has given him asylum, Edward Snowden opposed the new legislation, calling it Russia's Big Brother laws.

The head of Russia's top mobile phone and internet operators wrote a letter to the Federal Council, the upper house of parliament, ahead of Wednesday's vote, calling the amendments "technically and economically unfeasible" and saying the cost of the expanded data storage would bankrupt the firms. Russian information technology experts have calculated that it would take every data-storage manufacturer in the world seven years of continuous work before Russia would have the infrastructure to accommodate so much storage and processing.

Though the legislation passed in both houses, many legislators are now claiming never to have seen the actual documents. Communist lawmakers complained going into the vote that they received drafts only hours before. With Federal Council votes traditionally unanimous, 16 senators either voted against or abstained from the vote. Even the president's own human rights chief, Mikhail Fedotov, is appealing to Putin to delay final approval of the legislation. This sort of dissent has been unheard of in the past decade.

According to Putin's spokesman, the president will take the widespread pushback into account. Despite his continued high popularity, Putin faces a divide among his loyalists, some of whom believe Russia needs stricter laws while others believe the country is growing too repressive. Putin has long attempted to balance the two sides. But with the economy in recession and pressure building from outside the country, the Russian leader must choose a path — a choice that will shape Russia for years to come.

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