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Russia: Putin Seeking New Legislation To Combat Extremism

Citing the need to combat nondemocratic, ultranationalist movements, Russian President Vladimir Putin has introduced legislation that would allow the banning of extremist groups. Such laws exist in many countries, but experts express concern that Putin's bill could be misused to shut down mainstream opposition parties.

Prague, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In terms of rhetoric, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has fully embraced the global war on terrorism, while putting a unique domestic spin on the issue.

In recent weeks -- most notably in his state-of-the-nation address on 18 April -- Putin has drawn a direct connection between terrorism and homegrown ultranationalist groups that have appeared on the fringes of Russian society over the past decade.

Putin says the skinheads, neo-Nazis, and other extremists who parade through Russia's cities and have caused occasional violence, pose a threat to society. He says the answer to the threat is new anti-extremism legislation that he has put forward for parliament's consideration.

The head of the State Duma's Legislative Committee, Pavel Krasheninnikov, agrees. He said this week that Russia is in urgent need of a new law restricting not just extremist individuals but organizations as well, noting that almost all European countries have such statutes.

Analysts believe the bill, which is now being considered by the Duma's Justice Committee, has a good chance of passing. Public sentiment is with Putin on the issue.

But some politicians, especially the Communists, have expressed worries that certain of the bill's provisions could be used to muzzle legitimate expressions of opposition. The fact that the Communist Party stands in opposition to a bill ostensibly aimed at shutting down neo-Nazi organizations is an irony, but also understandable.

Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, said: "You could understand how they would be worried, because the organization of mass disturbances for any reason of intolerance -- and that could be defined very broadly -- could be seen as a cause for activating this law. Under the current law, it's only physical persons that can be tried for this and under this law it would also be organizations, so you could see how the Communist Party would have felt threatened by it and would still feel threatened by it."

In other words, if the bill is approved, calls by the Communists or any other party for a nationwide strike or other civil disobedience could give the government an excuse to ban the party.

Attempts several years ago by former President Boris Yeltsin to have a similar bill passed were blocked by the Communists. But the Communists were recently removed from key committee posts in the Duma, leaving little to block Putin's initiative.

De Spiegeleire agrees with Putin that Russia does have what is perhaps too liberal a regime concerning neo-Nazi sympathizers.

"It's obviously true that Russia has had an extraordinarily liberal regime on these kinds of matters. As you know, if you walk around in any bookstore on the street or in any flea market --- it's amazing the amount of things you can buy in Russia that you wouldn't be able to buy probably anywhere else in the Western world. [Adolph Hitler's book] 'Mein Kampf' is for sale everywhere; Nazi paraphernalia really can be bought at a lot of flea markets in Moscow and other Russian cities. So it is true that Russia has had an extraordinarily liberal climate on all of this," de Spiegeleire said.

The reason for this anomaly goes back to Soviet times. Whereas all countries in Western Europe instituted restrictions on various forms of extremism following the end of World War II, the Soviets did not devote much attention to the issue.

"In the Soviet Union there was this feeling that Soviet society was immune to these forms of extremism. There really wasn't this entire legislation that you would have expected and that you saw emerge in Western Europe. It's really only in the Russian period that this issue became much more salient -- also because of the appearance of all these extreme-right and extreme-left organizations -- that people felt something had to be done about it," de Spiegeleire said.

All of this would appear to back Putin's argument. But de Spiegeleire said both the timing of Putin's bill and the current state of Russia's judiciary should cause some concern.

"Extremism, as it is outlawed or made more difficult under this law, certainly doesn't seem to play the same role anymore in Russia that it did a couple of years ago. It's a long time since we've heard about guys like Makashov and Barkashov and Sterligov -- all these extreme-right leaders who had paramilitary organizations going for them. So it seems to me that the timing, from that point of view, may be a little bit off. And then also, if Russia had a normal legal system, I would feel more comfortable in saying that this law is perfectly OK. Unfortunately, the legal system in Russia is far from perfect and also the politicization, the continued politicization of the legal system makes for a situation where laws like this could really be abused," De Spiegeleire said.

The Kremlin cites Europe's example as it pushes for an anti-extremism law. What has the continent's experience been with such laws in the postwar era and what lessons can this offer?

Giovanni Capoccia is a political scientist at Oxford University who has studied the issue. He said that preserving the interests of free speech and free association in the broadest possible measure, while safeguarding democracy against extremists, is a delicate balancing act. Different countries pursue different models.

"After World War II and the experience of fascism or occupation regimes, there were quite a lot of reactions in terms of legislation in different countries, so the level of precision with which extremism or extremist actions are defined varies enormously across countries. And so it's very difficult to find one single equilibrium point across Europe that says: This is what an extremist party is, this is what an extremist ideology is, and this is what an extremist action is," Capoccia said.

Capoccia said some European countries have chosen narrow definitions of what constitutes an extremist party -- banning only Nazi groupings, for example -- while others leave the matter more open.

"You have cases, for example, like Germany, where extremist parties or groups or associations are defined quite narrowly, in the constitution and in the jurisprudence of the constitutional accords. And you have cases like France, where in the constitution for example, the definition of what parties cannot do if they don't want to be unconstitutional is much more vague. So, it's impossible to come up with one single European standard," Capoccia said.

While some countries focus on a party's or group's stated ideology in assessing whether it is extremist, other countries, such as the United States, focus on actions. As long as individuals or groups do not incite violence, they may publicly advocate almost any position. Inevitably, whatever the laws in force, it is the courts that become important arbiters in determining whether a party has overstepped the bounds of constitutional behavior.

"The standards in this respect in Europe are that there is always -- except in exceptional circumstances where you have a state of emergency or something like that -- there is always some form of judicial review," Capoccia said.

In the final analysis, laws are only as good as those who interpret them. And as de Spiegeleire noted, Russia's judiciary is sometimes subject to government pressure and the courts have not always demonstrated sufficient independence.