Annals of the Neo-Soviet Police State

Radio Free Europe reports:

Aleksandr Podrabinek knows a creeping police state when he sees one.

As a Soviet-era dissident he was a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, editor of the samizdat journal “The Chronicle of Current Events,” and the author of a 1977 book, “Punitive Medicine,” that chronicled the abuses of the psychiatric profession against political prisoners. He was exiled to Siberia for criticizing the Soviet authorities in the 1970s and sent to a labor camp in the 1980s for distributing forbidden literature.

In a recent two-part series of articles published in the online magazine “Yezhednevnyi zhurnal,” Podrabinek connects the dots and argues that the soft-authoritarian regime established by Vladimir Putin over the past decade is about to be transformed into something much harsher.

The catalyst, Podrabinek argues, is the ongoing economic crisis, which is hitting Russia hard and undermining one of the cornerstones of the regime’s legitimacy — relative prosperity:

The increasingly severe economic crisis could easily cause people who have always avoided seditious thinking to start questioning the national policy line. Mass discontent is only one step away from mass protest. If this happens at the height of the crisis, which is expected to reach its peak in spring and summer, the regime will have a mechanism of mass repression ready to respond.

This mechanism is being prepared under the guise of judicial reform:

What are the factors deterring arbitrary judicial rulings in criminal trials? Defense attorneys, jurors, and the independent press. These  institutions of the law-governed democratic state have to be destroyed –not only to make the courts manageable, but also to make them seem objective and independent to outside observers.

The State Duma has already passed legislation eliminating jury trials in cases of terrorism, hostage taking, the organization of illegal armed formations, mass disturbances, treason, espionage, sedition, armed rebellion, and sabotage. “In other words, from the very cases which are most likely to have political overtones or to be politically motivated,” writes Podrabinek.

The Public Chamber, an advisory body made up of luminaries that purports to represent civil society before the Kremlin, has unanimously called on President Dmitry Medvedev to veto the legislation.

This, however, is highly unlikely since it was Medvedev who proposed the law in the first place. And once enacted, it will revive a judicial system that Podrabinek knows all too well:

Now the defendants in these cases will be judged by a panel of three federal judges — and no journalists or jurors will be allowed into a carefully guarded courtroom of the state factory for the production of verdicts. If necessary, the three judges can also be dismissed and replaced by a Special Conference, trying the case in the defendants’ absence and barring the right of appeal and any further correspondence.

And as I have written here and here, the authorities are also attempting to change the definition of treason and espionage.

The government submitted a bill to the State Duma on December 12 widening treason — currently defined as taking action aimed at damaging the country’s external security — to include endangering Russia’s “constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Likewise, the definition of espionage will be expanded from revealing state secrets to foreign governments, their organizations, or their representatives to also include divulging state secrets to foreign NGOs.

Podrabinek points out that that this is clearly designed to discourage the activities of international human rights organizations in Russia, and to frighten Russian citizens from working with them. “This probably does not presuppose NATO or the European Union,” he writes. “It is more likely to apply to Reporters without Borders or Human Rights Watch.”

And the fuzzy wording in the statute gives the authorities enough leeway to find a pretext to “legally” jail virtually anybody deemed undesirable:

“Vague wording, the possibility of many different interpretations, and ambiguous definitions are essential for the mass enforcement of criminal laws against innocent people. In the Soviet years, these were ‘Counterrevolutionary Crimes’ and later there was ‘Anti-Soviet Activity’ for political repression and “Disturbing the Peace” for every other case in which a person had to be put behind bars but there was no suitable statute.”

The next step, Podrabinek writes, is to rein in defense attorneys:

“Attempts have been made to take lawyers in hand, but these attempts have always been resisted by the legal profession. We only think the regime can do whatever it wants to do, without worrying about running into any obstacles. It actually has to do battle with the public, and its victory or defeat depends on the strength of public resistance. The current regime, however, is not inclined to be stopped by any obstacles. We probably can expect the Kremlin to come up with some legislative initiatives to restrict the rights and capabilities of lawyers quite soon.”

Actually, the campaign began awhile ago. In July 2007, in a case that would make Franz Kafka proud, Russian prosecutors accused the prominent defense attorney Boris Kuznetsov with divulging state secrets.

Kuznetsov was defending Levon Chakhmakhchyan, a former member of the Federation Council, against embezzlement charges. Part of the state’s case against Chakhmakhchyan was based on illegal wiretaps conducted by the Federal Security Service. When Kuznetsov brought the wiretaps to light, he was charged with revealing state secrets.

“I did not send it to Mossad or the CIA, but to the [Russian] Constitutional Court,” Kuznetsov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service at the time.

Kuznetsov, who had long annoyed the authorities by aggressively defending opponents of the Kremlin, fled the country to avoid prosecution.

He probably won’t be the last.

5 responses to “Annals of the Neo-Soviet Police State

  1. Well it looks like the great terror is alive and well and living in Moscow. Surprise, surprise.

  2. If Russia had a strong economy and somewhat healthy middle class, I think they would be a candidate for a Nazi Germany like resurgence. But due to their anemic economy and literally unhealthy populace full of cynicism and mistrust of everything, I kind of doubt they would be able to put together an effective coordinated military effort. The only thing of value that they have are nukes. Their military institutions are woefully inefficient and corrupt. If the economy completely tanks, could the disgruntled military hierarchy have a chance of deposing Putin? Doubtful I suspect, but if things REALLY get bad, who knows.

  3. Russia gets a Bronze Medal for 3rd Highest Suicide rate.

    This is the legacy Putin is building.

    Belarus is in 2nd.

    Lithuania is number 1. That may be an anomaly because the population is 1/44th that of Russia. 3.3 million people. Second, Lithuania’s neighbors are Belarus and Russia. Ow!
    3rd, we don’t know the break down percentage of Lithuanians to Ethnic Russians.

    The point is not to cheer suicide rates. The point is to show that Putin has not done a damn thing to improve the lives of his people. The best thing he could do would be to get himself and his government of his citizens’ way. I know the concept of freedom is a tough one. No one wants to to give up control and power.

    If Putin wants Russia to be a superpower, a real superpower (economic and militarily, you have to have a free society built on a democratic foundation and you have to be good neighbor to you fellow nations. That is never going to happen as long as P and M are in power.

  4. If “I am Russian” a self confessed tax lawyer is anything to go by, remaining Russian lawyers (who have not been purged by the Putin government) are already fairly indoctrinated.

    Those who choose to uphold the law, rather than slavishly support Putin & co, like Kuznetsov are either hounded out of Russia or quietly murdered.

    • Борис Кузнецов

      Андрей, я не уверен, что они бы меня убили. Думаю, что главная задача ФСБ не допустить меня до участия в делах, где “торчат уши” чекистов. Из обычного адвоката, меня сделали борцом с режимом. С уважением.

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