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Russian Lawmakers Bend On Sanctions Bill But Stand Firm On Punishing 'Abettors'

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza was specifically named as a potential target for prosecution should the legislation be enacted.
Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza was specifically named as a potential target for prosecution should the legislation be enacted.

Following criticism from the country's business community, Russian lawmakers have signaled they could water down draft legislation that originally proposed criminal penalties -- including prison time -- for Russian citizens who comply with international sanctions targeting Moscow.

But they are standing firm on a proposal that could lead to criminal prosecutions of Kremlin critics who encourage foreign governments to hit Russian officials, entities, or citizens with sanctions, according to officials who discussed the bill in the lower house of parliament on May 23.

"Regarding abetting the introduction of sanctions against Russia, everyone believes that this should remain in the Criminal Code," Ivan Melnikov, one of the bill's authors, was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying following discussion of the legislation in the State Duma.

The bill in question is part of Russia's response to U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russian officials, tycoons, and companies.

The original version of the bill provided for prison sentences of up to four years for those found guilty of actions "taken with the goal" of complying with international sanctions.

That provision drew fire from a prominent Russian industry lobby, which called it "categorically unacceptable" and said it would "create additional conditions for administrative pressure on business."

Russian lawmakers appear to be relenting on that point after delaying the bill's consideration to consult with industry representatives and experts.

Yaroslav Kuzminov, the rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics who took part in the May 23 discussion of the legislation, told Russian news agencies that a new version of the bill would make compliance with foreign sanctions an administrative infraction punishable by a fine.

Melnikov, the Duma's first deputy speaker, also suggested the original proposal to criminalize sanctions compliance would be scrapped and replaced with administrative punishments, the Russian parliament's official newspaper quoted him as saying.

At least one state lender has already halted its dealings with Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska after he and his aluminum manufacturer, Rusal, were hit with U.S. sanctions last month, according to the bank's head.

"Of course, we are not lending any new money to him, we are not having any operations with him," Andrei Kostin, the president and chairman of VTB Bank who himself was hit with U.S. sanctions along with Deripaska and others, told CNBC in a May 23 interview.

'Abetting' Sanctions

While lawmakers may be backing down on the issue of sanctions compliance, they voiced continued support for the proposed criminal penalties for Russian citizens who "abet" the introduction of sanctions by foreign governments to punish Russia's leadership.

The original proposal appeared specifically aimed at Kremlin opponents who have lobbied U.S. and European lawmakers to hit Russian officials and alleged rights abusers with sanctions, and it provided for prison sentences of up to three years for those found guilty.

One such activist -- veteran opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza -- was specifically named by a Russian lawmaker as a potential target for prosecution should the legislation be enacted.

Kara-Murza was a prominent advocate for the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law introducing sanctions for Russians deemed by Washington to be rights abusers, and he has urged European governments to implement similar measures as well.

The lawmaker who suggested Kara-Murza could be prosecuted -- Andrei Isayev of the ruling United Russia party -- said on May 23 that the proposed criminal penalties for Russians who "abet" the introduction of foreign sanctions "without a doubt should be approved."

"Everyone said that," TASS quoted Isayev as saying following the discussion of the legislation in the Duma.

Kara-Murza, who has twice fallen gravely ill in Russia in recent years in what he alleges were deliberate poisonings aimed at punishing him for his activism, told RFE/RL last week that he did not intend to let "the actions of the current regime" dictate his activities.

The original version of the bill was passed in a first reading by the State Duma on May 15.

Isayev said the new version of the legislation was expected to be ready next week, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

In order to become law, the bill needs to be passed in two more readings in the Duma. It must then be approved in the upper house of parliament before being sent to the Kremlin for President Vladimir Putin's signature.

In a separate legislative package in response to U.S. sanctions, lawmakers on May 22 passed in a third and final Duma reading a bill that would give the Russian government the authority to ban trade in certain items with countries that "implement unfriendly moves toward Russia."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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