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Angering Anti-Corruption Crusaders, Russia Proposes Banning Access To Land Registry

An investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's property holdings garnered millions of views on YouTube and sparked widespread protests. (file photo)
An investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's property holdings garnered millions of views on YouTube and sparked widespread protests. (file photo)

Russia's Economy Ministry has proposed restricting access to the Unified Land Registry, or EGRN, a database widely used by journalists and anticorruption campaigners to shed light on the lifestyles of the country's elite.

The bill, which has been published on the parliament's website, would introduce fines of up to 400,000 rubles for publishing, sharing, or selling information from the registry. It will be debated in parliament following a public appraisal.

Critics say the legislation falls in line with attempts to restrict access to information in the wake of several high-profile investigations into official corruption, and note previous attempts by authorities to restrict access to sensitive data capable of revealing the undeclared assets of powerful figures.

"This bill strictly regulates the rights of those who possess information to use it freely and distribute it as they wish," Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of Transparency International Russia, told the newspaper Vedomosti, adding that anyone who accesses information that doesn't concern state secrets from a government registry should be allowed to legally distribute it.

'Duplicate Websites'

In 2015, the Federal Security Service backed legislation that would anonymize the personal data of real-estate owners, but it foundered in parliament after the Justice Ministry warned that it would endanger property rights. In 2017, the Duma passed amendments that limited the publication of officials' details and those of their family members to instances when their express permission was granted.

A description of the new bill on the parliamentary portal presents the initiative as a response to complaints from Russian citizens about "duplicate websites" that allegedly present fake information acquired from the EGRN register.

Anti-corruption campaigner Georgy Alburov (file photo)
Anti-corruption campaigner Georgy Alburov (file photo)

But Georgy Alburov, a lawyer at the Anti-Corruption Foundation run by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny who first drew public attention to the new bill, believes it's aimed at clamping down on groups like his.

"It's clearly written there that the handover and publication of data is forbidden," he told Vedomosti. "The Anti-Corruption Foundation publishes EGRN data in its entirety."

One example is the foundation's 2017 investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, titled He's Not Dimon To You. It was a catalyst for mass protests against corruption that erupted across Russia that March, and the bulk of the data cited was acquired from Russian state registers.

In 2017, the Supreme Court rejected a complaint by Navalny against the actions of the state registry, which anonymized the names of Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika's sons following an Anti-Corruption Foundation's probe into their business dealings.

Alburov pointed out proposed legislation apparently released in conjunction with the new bill that would substantially raise the costs of acquiring data from the registry and set a lower limit of 50,000 records, at a cost of over 1 million rubles ($15,500). "That means everyone who doesn’t have a million can't use the service -- that's a blow to journalists and to business," Alburov said.

Shumanov appeared to agree. "The new bill is largely aimed at private services selling EGRN records, which would compete in competition with the official register," he told Vedomosti. "But considering the unpredictable nature of Russian law enforcement I wouldn’t be surprised if average citizens are harmed through this."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.