Russia has been in the news quite a bit of late; the flooding disaster in Krymsk has captured the press’s imagination, and it once again sees the downfall of Putin coming any minute now. But we can safely leave that for the moment because (1) nothing of the kind is going to happen, as usual, and 2) that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
No, what I wanted to talk about today is legal reform in Russia, which has also enjoyed a good deal of recent and heated press discussion; specifically, new laws put forward by the Putin government and in various stages of adoption. Western media sources, as is their habit whenever Putin does or says anything, are capering about like howler monkeys and flinging their poo in all directions in their excitement, each trying to outdo the others in the hyperbole wars to describe just how bad – my dears, how draconian – are these laws. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you by putting the conclusion up front, but what I hope to show you is that when the west screams “Putin is crushing dissent in Russia!!!” what they really mean is “Putin is making it harder for the people we are hoping will overthrow him to do their jobs!!!”
What we’ll look at today are the new laws stiffening the penalties for organizing or participating in an illegal demonstration, regulating foreign Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGO’s, and re-criminalizing defamation, perhaps better known in the west as libel. As is our custom, we’ll look at these laws in the context of whether or not there was really a need for them, and whether they appear unnecessarily harsh or cruel when compared with similar legislation in western democracies. That should prove particularly interesting this time around, as the laws were patterned on western models except for the defamation law, which was simply re-criminalized after the Medvedev government reduced its status to a civil offense.
First, the law on participating in or organizing an illegal demonstration. What constitutes an illegal demonstration? One for which prior permission from the relevant authority has not been obtained. In American law, it’s referred to as Unlawful Assembly, and is defined thus (emphasis mine): “Wherever three or more persons assemble with intent or with means and preparations to do an unlawful act which would be riot if actually committed, but do not act toward the commission thereof, or whenever such persons assemble without authority of law, and in such a manner as is adapted to disturb the public peace, or excite public alarm, such assembly is an unlawful assembly.” Although there are slightly varying versions from state to state and some are more or less severe than others, this is a good benchmark. Protests and demonstrations most certainly do fall under the umbrella of unlawful assembly, and although Americans have a constitutionally protected right to free speech and freedom of assembly, unlawful assembly comes under the Common Law, and freedom of assembly requires permission unless it in no way disturbs the public peace. Just because a demonstration is political does not make it lawful; “[t]he State, no less than a private owner of property, has power to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated.” That “stroll” you want to take with 800 of your friends, to exercise and emphasize your right to use the public roadways as you see fit? Uh uh. Not unless it’s your private road. Unlawful assembly is a misdemeanor charge in the USA that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail in most states and jurisdictions.
In the U.K., you must give 6 days notice in writing in advance of a public procession, specify the route to be taken and the time it is intended to start, and supply the name and address of at least one organizer. You are in violation of the law if you deviate from any of the information supplied. Any senior police officer can impose such conditions upon the public procession as he or she sees fit if a reasonable concern arises that it will result in serious public disorder. If you are convicted of an offense you are subject to a fine not to exceed level 3 on the standard scale, which equates to £1000.00. That’s $1556.84 USD at today’s exchange rate.
The previous Russian law on Public Assembly prescribed a penalty ceiling of 5000 rubles; $153.06 at today’s exchange rate. Although western media outlets shrieked that Putin was “tightening the laws on the right to protest“, the public’s right to assembly was not changed at all. The penalty for taking part in an illegal or unsanctioned demonstration was stiffened considerably, imposing somewhat higher fines for participants ($310.00 – $8,760.00 USD) and much higher fines for organizers, based on whether or not persons are injured in an unsanctioned demonstration and the participation of persons who are wearing masks or have their faces deliberately obscured and/or are carrying weapons. Please note, persons taking part in an authorized protest event – as all the protests in Russia this year and late 2011 were – who are not carrying weapons, are not masked or do not offer violence have no reason to expect any penalty at all. Rather than stifling protest because the government has no answers and fears the power of organized protest, the law is clearly aimed at forcing people to demonstrate within the law. The protests were steadily dwindling in numbers long before the law was modified, and the modification was directly inspired by a protest which turned violent, in which there was considerable reason to believe the escalation was preplanned and deliberate. There is also the appearance that opposition figures are receiving funding from abroad to nurture and strengthen public unrest: anyone who believes Ksenya Sobchak’s assertion that the $1.5 Million or so in foreign currency – found in the very “cash-stuffed envelopes” western journalists customarily reserve for reporting Kremlin bribery and corruption – in her flat was there because she doesn’t trust banks and that using envelopes is “more convenient” for her suffers from a complete suspension of skepticism.
Was there a need for this augmentation of the law? I say there was. Western encouragement of demonstration against the Russian government, deification of opposition leaders and possible funneling of financial support to the opposition too apparently follows the pattern established for western intervention in a number of other countries; small fines for breaking the law were obviously not enough of a deterrent. Meanwhile, western journalists continue to argue the Russian people should be allowed to assemble where and when it pleases them, and go as an assembly where they wish, knowing this is not legal in their own countries, and to suggest stiffer penalties for wearing a mask which would complicate or preclude identification and/or carrying a weapon to a demonstration are aimed at crushing dissent. So concerned over the possibility that protests could escalate to riots is the government of peaceful Canada that it recently doubled the penalty for wearing a mask while participating in a riot – to 10 years imprisonment.
Next up on the list is the long-overdue reform of the sloppy NGO laws, which will obligate foreign non-governmental organizations – NGO’s – to register as foreign agents if they operate under certain conditions, such as receipt of foreign funding and transmission of a political message. Many have mentioned already that this law is lifted directly from the United States of America’s Foreign Agent Registration Act, but we might as well be speaking Swahili; the press has made up its mind that it is outrageous to restrict the political activities of western countries’ agencies operating in Russia, and that these wholly-innocent entities are being intolerably insulted by the Putin government’s move to regulate their activities. So, let’s look at that.
According to Iron-Maiden-album-cover-look-alike Lyudmila Alekseyeva, this is just a move to stigmatize nice people, who only do good works, as “foreign agents”. Co-crackpot Lilia Shibanova of the western-funded NGO Golos says she will take it to the International Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. Good luck with that, Lilia, because they’re just going to look it over and say, hey; isn’t this just like the USA’s Foreign Agent Registration Act? Why yes; yes, it is.
In a burst of absurdity, even for him, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin blubbered, “now even appeals to build ramps for disabled people might be considered a political activity.” This is based on Alekseyeva’s analysis that “every human rights organization falls under the definition of political”. This, in turn, is based on the definition of “political activities” as expressed in the bill: “…any activity to influence state decision-making, change state policy or shape public opinion.” This, detractors insist, is too broad a classification, in an attempt to force the government to modify and redefine it and possibly offer loopholes that will allow NGO’s to slip through the cracks.
Well, who has to register in the United States, under FARA? Persons who are acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi political capacity. Quasi-political? Isn’t that a little vague? Well, perhaps they’re a little more specific in the Frequently Asked Questions section. Here, we learn that “foreign principals” means “…foreign political parties, a person or organization outside the United States, except U.S. citizens, and any entity organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country” (emphasis mine), and that the purpose of the Act is “…to insure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws“. Influencing U.S. public opinion, I submit, is a pretty broad brush. According to Deutsche Welle, branding foreign NGO’s as “agents” is “…a scandalous defamation..unacceptable…a declaration of war against [one’s] own people…factual destruction of the largest independent civil society organizations”. Of course, they were speaking about the new Russian law. Restricting the operation of foreign NGO’s in the United States is just looking out for your own interests, and eminently sensible. At least, Deutsche Welle has never thought to criticize it. Included, as has become de rigueur in similar articles, is mention of Lyudmila Alekseyeva’s brave stand against tyranny, in which she insists her agency – the Moscow Helsinki Group – will refuse to register because they are not foreign agents.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva is a U.S. citizen, holder of an American passport, and the Moscow Helsinki Group receives direct funding from the European Union and United States. What, I wonder, would the U.S. government make of a foreign NGO operating in the United States whose head was a Russian citizen and whose funding came mostly from China and Belarus, which regularly denounced the U.S. President, his government and his policies and accused him of being directly responsible for war atrocities in Iraq – which refused to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act as a foreign agent and demanded to be allowed to carry on with its good works unmolested? The new NGO law, which is virtually identical to FARA, is consistently marketed in the western press as “another clampdown on dissent” which “could be used to intimidate government critics and to impede progress toward democracy” and even “block humanitarian aid”. But somehow FARA, the law from which it was implicitly copied, is fair and sensible and just something you need to do to prevent foreign agents from having a free hand in your country.
The Orange Revolution was a catalyst in many ways for the west, not least for its use of NGO’s to undermine and attack the government while providing direct support to the forces that overthrew it. But it also represents the high-water mark for colour revolutions – although the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan would later topple President Akayev, a number of real crises during his rule and an apathetic response to opposition made him a likely candidate for political collapse anyway, and a push by NGO’s had little part in his failure. Since then, although there have been other attempts to unify discontent behind opposition candidates in a fashion strikingly similar to the colour revolutions, none has succeeded in toppling the government. “The Color Revolution Virus and Authoritarian Antidotes – Political Protest and Regime Counterattacks in Post Communist Spaces” is generally approving of democratization efforts and critical of national efforts to control them; it nonetheless honestly points out that Lukashenko in Belarus – targeted for a colour revolution centered on elections – was able to interdict the opposition simply by holding surprise elections 4 months earlier than initially planned. The opposition was not ready to mobilize its big push to shape public opinion, and was wrong-footed. But that begs the question – was there really a massive wave of discontent in Belarus simply waiting to be exploited, or was it the plan of outside interests to create the appearance of one, timed to coincide with the election?
There is broad agreement among analysts of the colour revolutions, regardless whether the analysts supported or rejected them, that foreign NGO’s played a major role in unseating the government; in the form of supplying them with promotional material such as stickers, banners and flags, in importing activists of previous successful colour revolutions to train the next protest movement, in bringing domestic activists to the west to educate them in the techniques of revolution and in promoting their cause through mass and social media. A good deal of emphasis was concentrated in training for election monitoring, and in the successful revolutions the opposition seized control of exit polling, broadcasting its own poll results showing the opposition being defrauded while interjecting clips of alleged ballot-box stuffing and vote fraud. There is no particular evidence that the opposition’s narrative was any more accurate than the government’s, except that the opposition’s position was enthusiastically supported by election monitors who had a vested interest in toppling the government, many of them expatriate dissidents who live in western countries. According to “The Color Virus” (cited earlier) the main mistakes made by the overthrown regime in Ukraine were “Allowing too much liberty of action to non-regime actors and being too dependent on western goodwill towards election results”. Indeed. The tipping point was likely America’s loud refusal to recognize the original election results.
Open Democracy, surprisingly, is unequivocal in its opinion that the colour revolutions were orchestrated by international interests through NGO’s, and quotes Laurence Whitehead; “Two-thirds of the democracies existing in 1990 owed their origins to deliberate acts of imposition or intervention from without…It is not contiguity but the policy of a third power that explains the spread of democracy from one country to the next.” And Whitehead viewed democratic revolutions not as a virus, but a vaccine. That might not be so bad, were these outside interests genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the country, to lift it up and make it something better. Instead, the aim is to sow discord and unrest, and thereby promote instability in the hope the country will collapse. You need look no further than Ukraine after the Orange Revolution for an example. It slid further down the corruption index every year, despite that index being an instrument maintained by the west for rewarding compliant – but still corrupt – toadies like Saakashvili’s Georgia. The standard of living worsened, and political bickering on a scale not seen in recent memory broke out. Anyone who viewed the Yushchenko/Tymoshenko years as an improvement by any standard of measure was probably also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan who believed in unicorns. The west that was so eager to see Ukraine free and democratic did nothing to help it get on its feet once its pet “reformer” was in the driver’s seat, actually caring nothing for Ukraine beyond preventing it from realigning itself with Russia. Ukrainian-American expats who had been wild with joy at the western-backed Orange Revolution learned a bitter lesson.
Rather, however, than growing discouraged with the failure of marketing sedition through its government-funded NGO’s since that success, the technique has evolved into a warfare discipline in the USA – Unconventional Warfare (UW). Defined as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area”, UW is employed to “support existing political, military and social infrastructure to accelerate, stimulate and support decisive action based on calculated political gain and U.S. national interests.” Successful insurgencies, we learn, require leadership, customarily provided by “the underground”. It is not hard to visualize the opposition as the underground. However, we also learn, “the proliferation of social media has introduced a new type of underground: a digitally connected, leaderless organization with varying levels of commitment to the cause.”
Here, from the Special Forces Unconventional Warfare Manual, is the “tree” of sequential events and actions that constitutes the Structure of an Insurgency or Resistance Movement. Mmmmm…quite a recipe. Establishment of National Front organizations and liberation movements, appeal to foreign sympathizers. Intensification of propaganda, psychological preparation of population for rebellion. Overt and covert pressures against government: strikes, riots and disorder. Increased underground activities to show strength of Resistance Organization and weakness of Government.
This, by the way, is essentially a military operation, and most closely parallels the sequence of events in Egypt which led up to the resignation of Hosni Mubarek. You remember Egypt: that country that recently raided the offices of American NGO’s, expelled some and arrested individuals in others, and is continuing with investigations of about 400. But a couple of things should be considered. Although I believe we can agree the USA would not deploy soldiers in Russia to support an insurrection against the Russian government – it would be beyond an international incident if they were caught – you don’t have to be physically present in the country to run a UW campaign through social media. You just have to speak and write the language. Twitter, as the Director of the Special Operations Leader educational program helpfully described, is instantaneous and a good way to initiate a flash mob. Besides, there already is a perfectly serviceable foreign army in Russia – hundreds of NGO’s which act as fronts for agitation against the government. What there is not is a single charismatic candidate around which the opposition can coalesce and grow strong, and the desperation of effort to define one was visible in the running of the crowd from one candidate to the other; now Boris Nemtsov, now Mikhail Prokhorov, now Alexei Navalny, with the western media enthusiastically hyping all of them so as to hedge its bets.
Is the law regulating NGO’s necessary? It manifestly is – there is a good number of groups active in Russia that actually do little to better the lives of ordinary Russians, but simply capitalizes on their problems for political gain and makes a disproportionate amount of noise in the press: their affiliation is easily observed by the eagerness with which their narrative is picked up and amplified – often word for word – in the western media. These organizations are not in Russia to do good; they are in Russia to weaken and depose the government so as to install a government more in line with desires originating outside the country. Although they appear sometimes to argue only for sensible reform, the level of reforms if carried out would grant the people such disproportionate power over the state that the government might just as well resign and say “every man for himself”, as it would have abdicated all its legislative power.
Is the law harsh and unfair? Not unless FARA – on which it is modeled – is just as harsh and unfair; and nobody is willing to concede that. Both allow NGO’s to continue their activities unmolested (to the extent they are not illegal, such as fomenting riots or promoting ethnic hatred) provided they register as foreign agents and prominently mark all their promotional material as originating with a foreign agent, as well as disclosing all their foreign funding. Hillary Clinton has already promised the heads of prominent NGO’s in Russia to continue funding no matter what happens, which suggests she is well aware there is nothing illegal or unfair about it and it is just another stumbling block America must overcome in its drive for regime change. Both allow reasonable exceptions for organizations able to demonstrate their activities are in no way political and are instead honestly charitable – free English classes and building wheelchair ramps are not political activities, regardless of Kudrin’s hysterics.
It is a harsh reality of modern geopolitics that your country’s right to self-determination will be usurped and taken from you exactly to the extent you allow it.
Editor’s Note: I had decided not to discuss the libel law in detail because it was essentially just a restoration to a criminal offense in certain circumstances from an administrative offense under Medvedev. But Human Rights Watch “went there”, and so a response is almost demanded.
Your attention is drawn to the excellent series of comments by Alexander Mercouris in the last post, which was actually the inspiration for this post (thanks, Alex). Human Rights Watch – which apparently has no problem at all with dissembling and playing upon people’s ignorance, or is itself ignorant of what the Russian law says, and I am hard put to suggest which is the more inexcusable – would have you believe they “applauded the decriminalization of libel in Russia”. Look; they say so, right here: “It’s hard to believe that just a little more than half a year ago we were wholeheartedly applauding the decriminalization of libel in Russia and congratulating the Kremlin on making this important step to protect free speech,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch.”
Is that so? Where? Here’s your report entitled “Events of 2011”. Show me where you wholeheartedly applauded the decriminalization of libel. In fact, it is a page-long rant about repression, torture, murder, corruption, harassment and grave human rights violations. The closest to any mention of wholehearted applause or congratulating the Kremlin is “Several positive developments pertaining to freedom of expression were offset by detrimental legislative initiatives in other areas.” That makes you, Tanya Lokshina, a lying sack of shit. Go ahead and sue me for defamation.
Key takeaways for Human Rights Watch from Alex’s comments are (1) An absolute defense against libel is that the assertion is true. Got that? If you say, “Putin is planning to invade Georgia” (I’m looking at you, Yulya Latynina, you spinny cow) and you publish plans signed by Putin that are headed “Georgia Invasion Plan”, he has not a hope of a successful libel suit against you. If you have no such evidence and you print things like that from here on out, bring your big handbag to court with you, because it’s going to cost you. (2) Decriminalization of libel is not necessarily an implication that libeling people is cheap and easy. Many countries treat defamation as a civil offense punishable only by a fine, and yet award enormous judgments in successful defamation suits. (3) If defamation is a criminal offense, those so accused are entitled to representation in court by a lawyer, and if they cannot afford one (think poor protesters) one will be provided at state expense. Russia is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, whose Article 6 enshrines this absolute right. (4) Many countries, some of which treat defamation as a civil rather than a criminal offense, still carry the potential maximum punishment for the guilty of lengthy prison sentences. Putin has recommended prison not be an option in defamation cases. The Russian law merely brings Russia into line with international norms, and as proposed is a good deal more lenient than some who brag of their democratic record.
“Libelous public statements or remarks reproduced by media outlets will be punished by a fine of up to 2 million rubles (just over US$61,000)” sobs Human Rights Watch. To quote crazy conservative snapperhead Michelle Malkin, Boo Freakin’ Hoo. Is Human Rights Watch arguing that the press should be allowed to lie? Hello, FNR (FOX News Russia)!!! I already told you that if what you say is true, you need fear no libel suit. Is it too much to ask for the press to back up its wild accusations? Do a little fucking research, why don’t you, instead of going to press with whatever your activist lunch date told you, blockhead. “The new law includes a special article on libel against judges, jurors, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials, punishable by a fine of up to 2 million rubles. Such a provision is incompatible with Russia’s human rights obligations, especially the need to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said”. Whoa, sorry; I’m confused. Russia’s human rights obligations include a provision whereby you must be allowed to accuse someone in the Russian judiciary or legal process of a grave crime without having to fact-check it? I reemphasize by slapping my palm with the back of the opposite hand – as long as what you say is true, you have absolutely nothing to worry about and can still say anything you like. And if you want to just take a ride on the bullshit surfboard, are you telling me Novaya Gazeta and other rags like it can’t afford $153,000.00 for guessing wrong??
What it boils down to is that bottom-feeders like Stanislav Belkovsky are going to have to stop accusing Putin of raping Billions from the Russian treasury and building himself disgustingly opulent Italianate palaces, as long as they can’t prove it. That, my friends, is long overdue.
As for Human Rights Watch – steady up, crybabies. The Russian libel law is no more draconian than similar laws all over the world, including the beacons of democracy and freedom you rhapsodize about. And nobody can successfully sue you for speaking the truth. I realize that’s going to kick the legs out from under Yulia Latynina, but she can always go back to fiction.