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The Power Vertical

Betraying The Motherland

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

Tags: justice,treason,criminal,espionage,Russia

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Krapotkin from: Houston,TX
December 17, 2008 00:36
I fail to see the difference between Russian new definitions and the actual US laws on the subject. <br />We dont have any foreign NGO to agitate against Bush and his gang, there must be a Law against it, but our Whistleblowers are hunted by the FBI on daily basis, as traitors so said Bush.<br />Read Newsweek about the interview of one of them.

by: joyce h Fletcher from: TEXAS
December 17, 2008 16:51
Putin is doing nothing that doesn't happen in Texas. The District 17 winner obviously broke the law by campainging and throwing a BBQ at the Tracy Gee Center while voting was going on. Her son advertised that his mother would make a good representative because she is a good mother. What she is for real was someone who wanted to win and didn't care about laws. Our government is manipulated for the good of those in power. A good example is the fact that the American people let the Supreme Court select a president, a president who seemingly has proved himself to be the worst ever.

by: Carl from: Dobrowolski
December 17, 2008 21:12
Those who comment that they do not see differences between our system and that which is now found in increasinlgly autocratic Russia, are either willingly blind, ignorant or willingly wish tostrike a false moral equivalency between the 2 powers similar to which was espoused during the Cold War. Simply put, our country is the freest society in the world but certainly not perfect. And where we experience are imperfections and legal irregularities, they are the exception not the rule. The inverse is true of Communist or neo-Communist societies such as Russia or China. And for references to &quot;Bush &amp; his gang&quot;, I wonder if this person would be able to say &quot;Putin &amp; his gang&quot; or &quot;Hu and his gang&quot; publicly in Russia or China and not be hauled in for interrogation. Cherish the freedom you have here, do not attack it but scurrilous comparisons. <br />

by: Anton from: Auckland
December 19, 2008 21:42
I do not think the current development would be correctly assessed in a series of collisions of opposite emotional perceptions of it. Whoever is &quot;freer&quot; in this world is up to the local residents to decide, not up to the outsiders. One may say in US a woman's basic right for abortion is compromised - add to this that women obtained the voting rights at least 50 years after Russia. This is not the case at all.<br /><br />The developing in Russia is just an alarming sign, that Russia prepares for another Cold War, and tries to restrict the information flows. I would put here a parallel with USA McCarthyism of 1950s, not with its Communist past. US positioned itself as an adversary - this is a reaction to this new reality, no more. <br /><br />Russia is a lawless society anyway - there is no need to introduce a new legislation to pin down the &quot;enemies&quot;, as they can be simply shot instead. The fact this has happened, on the contrary shows that Russia tries to establish a Law-obedient state! If a state says no citizen can pass a sensitive information to the outsiders - then the citizens must obey. If not - they are getting punished. Is this anything new in history???

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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