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At the behest of Vladimir Putin's government, Russian lawmakers are about to give the legal definitions of treason and espionage a little makeover. Just some minor cosmetic changes. Nothing to be alarmed about, really.

In the Russian Criminal Code, treason currently is defined as taking action aimed at damaging the country's external security. Espionage is defined as revealing state secrets to foreign governments, their organizations, or their representatives.

The government submitted a bill to the State Duma on December 12 widening treason to include endangering Russia's "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity." Likewise, the definition of espionage will be expanded to include revealing state secrets to foreign NGOs.

Not surprisingly, rights activists are duly distressed. The daily "Kommersant" quoted Lev Levinson of the Human Rights Institute as saying that that if the authorities are really going to interpret "any action directed against the constitutional regime" as treason, then its goal was apparently "to restore the Stalinist norm when anti-Soviet activity was a criminal offense."

Along the same lines, Boris Nadezhdin, head of the law department at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, said flatly that "anyone who has spoken to a foreigner could be declared a traitor."

To illustrate the point, Nadezhdin said that he had told the BBC about a letter he signed opposing constitutional amendments extending presidential terms to six years.

"Had the bill been effective then, I would have been arrested for treason, because I first signed an anti-constitutional letter and then discussed the issue with a foreign organization," Nadezhdin said.

And its not just touchy-feely human rights types that are raising red flags.

Yury Skuratov, who served as prosecutor-general under former President Boris Yeltsin told Interfax that the changes are "primarily a form of political and legal influence on the activity of various international foundations, which actively work in our country." He added that "the regime seems to fear that they can seriously influence the situation in Russia. It is possible that the experience of orange revolutions, almost all of which used these tools, was taken into consideration."

On the same day the government submitted the legislation, the State Duma also approved the third reading of changes to the criminal code that would eliminate the right to jury trials for a series of crimes, including: terrorism, hostage-taking, mass disturbances, rebellion, espionage, diversion, organizing unlawful armed formations, treason, and attempts to seize power by force.

So when all these changes inevitably become law, it will not only be easier to charge political opponents with treason and espionage, it will also be easier to secure a conviction.

That all this is happening now is, of course, no accident.

The economic crisis and falling oil prices are quickly eroding one of the key pillars of Vladimir Putin's rule (and yes, Russia is still under Vladimir Putin's rule) -- financial stability and relative prosperity. And as "Vedomosti" reports, recent public opinion polls show rising discontent among Russian citizens, with 39 percent saying they are dissatisfied with the government (the number jumps to 54 percent in industrial regions).

Putin and his inner circle appears to genuinely fear that some kind of unrest is on the horizon and are laying the legal groundwork to deal harshly and swiftly with any threats to their rule.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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