It is becoming increasingly clear that Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin means at least a deceleration if not a freeze of the liberalizing ‘thaw’ or ‘perestroika 2.0’ initiated during the administration of his predecessor and now Russian prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev. As I have detailed here and elsewhere, Medvedev’s presidency saw a series of reforms, some of which include: reforms of the MVD, the prison system, the criminal code and sentencing regime; strengthened anti-corruption legislation; a more liberal approach to opposition demonstrations and NGO reporting requirements; greater freedom of speech on state-controlled and independent media; minor reforms of the political system; and repeal of Putin’s 7 percent barrier and restoration of the pre-Putin 5 percent barrier for the percentage of votes needed by parties to take seats in the Duma for the 2016 elections.
Most importantly, in the wake of the December 2012 Duma elections Medvedev introduced a more sweeping re-democratization of Russia’s political and electoral systems. He proposed and this spring signed into law the following reforms: the elimination of the requirement that political parties gather signiatures to run in parliamentary election at the federal, regional, city, and district level; a sharp reduction in the number of signatures needed to register presidential candidates for parties (from 1 million to 100,000) and independent (from 2 million to 300,000); a sharp reduction in the number of members a party needs to be registered and a streamlining of the signature and registration process; a restoration of direct elections of regional governors abolished by Putin with a non-mandatory presidential ’filter’ or vetting process and a mandatory municipal ’filter’. The latter should help to empower Russia’s traditionally weak city and local government; and the establishment of public television channel, which will likely bring the kind of free speech and opposition access to national television that has existed on Ekho Moskvy radio. Other reforms are still being finalized for adoption by the Duma, including a modest liberalization of the method of selecting senators to the Federation Council that reinstates a role for the popular vote.
In sum, as the past Russian winter turned to spring, the country was undergoing a significant degree of reform and re-democratization.
Putin 2.0 Versus Perestroika 2.0
However, along with spring came Putin’s return. The new old president Putin moved quickly to stabilize the system under threat of dissolution from above by Medvedev’s reforms and below by an increasingly disgruntled society. Putin’s first step was to introduce to the Duma and sign into law astronomical fines for holding unsanctioned dpolitical protests or for violating the new regulations regarding political demonstrations. The law raises maximum fines up to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000) for participants and 1 million rubles for organizers of illegal protests or for violations of the law, such as wearing a mask, during such protests. The former fine almost equals the average Russian annual income of some $13,000; the latter is twice the average Russian income. Although the gap between the new Russian law and much Western legislation was overblown in the Western media, the law clearly goes far beyond what is reasonable punishment. Only French and recent Canadian legislation comes close to equaling or exceeds the new Russian law’s punishments. For example, French demonstrators can get up to a year in prison for an unauthorized protest that puts the public order at risk or up to a 15,000 euro ($18,680) fine if such a protest gathering does not break up after two warnings. Canada’s new Bill 78, passed this past May, places some tough restrictions on protests of more than 50 people, including fines up to $5,000 for student leaders who support unsanctioned protests and fines of $125,000 a day on student unions that defy the law. An accompanying municipal by-law punishes those who wear masks at demonstrations by fines from $1000 to $5000. If French protesters hide their faces at a protest, they face up to three years in prison and a 45,000 euro ($56,040) fine (Mansur Mirovalev, “Putin: Russia easier on protests than West Europe,” Associated Press, 9 June 2012 and Erin Hale, “Montreal's student protesters defy restrictions as demonstrations grow,” The Guardian, 25 May 2012). Thus it appears the West’s Francophones have an affinity for statism that rivals Putin’s Russia. On the other hand, the Francophones’ fines are not as draconian considering their much higher incomes.
Putin followed this with an attempt to reduce if not cut off the opposition’s foreign funding sources by proposing and signing into law new burdensome regulations and fines for Russian NGOs taking funds from foreign sources. Although the new law resembles the US Foreign Agents Registration Act – an American law requiring organizations and individuals representing foreign governments to disclose foreign support – the Russian version differs significantly in that it pertains to the financing of domestic individuals and groups representing themselves rather than foreign governments. Moreover, it focuses on domestic organizations that receive funds from private foundations not just from foreign governments. On the other hand, this is a long-in-coming Russian response to the U.S. practice of having private foundations that receive government funding offering grants to foreign individuals and groups. This Western albeit unavoidable practice blurs, but does not negate the tie between the U.S. government and the funds received abroad. With the important exception the Russia’s law treats its own citizens the way democratic countries tend to treat foreigners and those who would represent them, the Russian draft law is modeled almost exactly on the US law.
Other problems with the Russian law include the connotation of the word ‘foreign agent’ in the Russian historical context in which during the Soviet and pre-Soviet period the term was used to describe spies. The requirement to file some reports twice a year diverges from the Medvedev administration’s liberalization of NGO laws minimizing NGOs’ reporting burdens. However, it is similar to the U.S. law which also requires that foreign agents provide reports twice a year. Russia’s law does not diverge very much at all from Western practice in regards to the penalites it establishes for violations of the law. For example, the penalty in the draft Russian law for a failure to report required information is R50 thousand (approximately $1,700) for individuals and R1 million ($34,000) for NGOs. Other violations include penalties of a maximum prison sentence of four years, fines up to 300,000 rubles ($9,128) or 480 hours of mandatory community service. Under the U.S. law such violations are punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for not more than five years. For some offenses the punishment shall be a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. However, U.S. average annual income is about four times greater and does not fine statements critical of the authorities made by foreign agents no less NGO members. Another danger of the law comes with the Justice Ministry’s ability to establish the specific reporting requirements, which are not specified in the law, either in terms of the information that needs to be filed, the extent of forms to be filled out, and the method of their certification. Overall, the law seems designed to discourage but not prevent Russian NGOs from receiving foreign financial support. To the good, Putin stepped in at the last moment to ensure that the bill eventually adopted would pertain only to political activity and exempt religious, scientific, cultural, sport, art, and healthcare organizations, state corporations and state companies, non-commercial organizations established by them, as well as state and municipal establishments.
Putin then signed amendments to Russian laws partially re-criminalizing slander or defamation now punishable by a maximum fine of 500,000 rubles ($15,200) or up to five years in prison. Last year, Medvedev removed this article from the Criminal Code, making slander an administrative offense punishable by a fine of only 3,000 rubles ($90) as part of his efforts to “humanize” Russia’s harsh sentencing regime, much of it a Soviet era inheritance. Putin also signed into law amendments creating a system for blacklisting and shutting down ‘offensive’ Internet sites.
Also, Medvedev’s ‘Glasnost 2.0’ has been frozen in place and in one significant way rolled slightly back. Vladimir Posner was forced by the state-run First Channel to choose between staying with his interview program ‘Vladimir Posner’ there or continuing to co-host the news analysis and commentary program ‘Parfenov-Posner’ on the independent opposition channel Dozhd (Rain) TV; he chose his ‘Vladimir Posner’.
Most importantly, Putin has moved against the more radical Russian opposition leaders by raising the siloviki against them, threatening opposition leaders with investigations and already an indictment in Alexander Navallny’s case. In addition, State Duma deputy Genaddii Gudkov is being threatened with having his deputy’s immunity repealed as his business undergoes in investigation by the increasingly aggressive Investigations Committee. It also opened a criminal case against National Reserve Bank Chairman and oppsotion funder Alexander Lebedev for hooliganism after he punched property developer Sergey Polonsky during a television show in September. He faces a maximum sentence of five years if convicted. His NRB is under investigation by Russia’s Central Bank for money laundering. The prosecution of the Pussy Riot group criminalizes what should clearly be a case of fines under administrative law.
By contrast, as president Medvedev vetoed amendments to political protest and Internet laws similar to those adopted under Putin. Rather than burdening NGOs like Putin has, Medvedev lightened the regulatory burden for NGOs by simplifying financial accounting and registration rules and giving tax breaks to some categories of NGOs. When Medvedev reduced the number of crimes that could be punished by imprisonment among them was slander or defamation, which Putin has now re-criminalized. Putin’s moves to investigate and indict opposition leaders represent precisely the opposite approach taken during Medvedev’s term. Medvedev endeavored to reach out to the opposition even as they protested against the regime, and its leaders were given access to a slew of newly created political talk shows on state television.
Of course Medvedev is chairman of the United Russia party that pushed through all this new ‘Putin 2.0’ legislation through the Duma before Putin signed it. This raises once more the thorny issue of the Putin-Medvedev tandem and whether they see eye-to-eye on all issues or Medvedev is the liberal to Putin the traditonalist. Does Medvedev support these counter-reforms that are rolling back some of his key early reforms? If not, he has not said so. If Medvedev is responsible for the thaw’s deceleration now, should Putin have been credited with the earlier thaw during Medvedev’s presidency? If Medvedev the liberal differs significantly from Putin the traditionalist, how long can a regime split at the top be avoided if Putin continues to limit the thaw or moves to a full-scale crackdown and retrenchment? Signs of increased tension between the liberal and traditionalist camps already are being initiated by the traditionalists against Medvedev as liberals defect from the regime in protest against the return of Putin and counter-reform. For now, therefore, Putin seems constrained in his actions for fear of a greater regime split and larger exodus by liberals and opportunists.
Remnants of the Thaw
The above can mean that the thaw will not be rolled back entirely or even stopped. So far Putin has not touched the main achievement of perestroika 2.0 - the spring 2012 legislation significantly redemocratizing the political system (leaving aside the issue of whether electoral fraud will continue and remain a central feature of the regime). Instead of rolling back the spring reforms of the state’s political and electoral systems, Putin has decided to squeeze the opposition on the streets through investigations and possible criminal charges, hoping some moderates will join the reformed system as he constricts and isolates the radicals of the new street politics.
It also appears that Putin will pursue several, less political but no less key Medvedev reforms going forward, such as the MVD reform and anti-corruption measures. Thus, new MVD chief Kolokoltsev appears intent on developing Medvedev’s police reforms. This can be seen in Putin’s and Kolokoltsev's personnel policies in the MVD. After appointing the more accommodating Kolokoltsev, Putin has continued to purge the police’s top ranks, while Kolokoltsev sacks police chiefs over crimes committed by their subordinates. Indicative as well is the Moscow police’s recent admission that some of its personnel violated the law during the 6 May 2012 Million March demonstration by improperly displaying their badges so that they were not visible to citizens and Kolokoltsev’s introduction of a bill that requires his personnel to apologize to citizens for violating their rights. He also issued an order banning the police from blocking roadways for convoys of cars transporting police chiefs. This is in line with the general trend of reducing traffic privileges for bureaucrats evidenced by Putin’s sharp reduction in the number of official cars allowed special blue lights allowing them to circumvent traffic.
In bids to continue the fight against corruption, Putin has also introduced legislation to forbid officials from maintaining foreign bank accounts, and prosecutors and courts are carrying out a wave of indictments and convictions of high-ranking officials in the military and regional governments for corruption. Putin has also appointed a liberal businessman, Boris Titov, to a newly created position of business ombudsman. Titov promises to combat the raiding of businesses, often assisted by police and other siloviki, and has made noises about appealing to Putin for oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii’s release from prison. Shortly after those noises a court reduced the prison term of Khodorkovskii’s co-defendant Platon Lebedev by three plus years setting his release for next March. Also, amidst fears that a new procedure for forming the Presidential Council on Human Rights would drive top human rights defenders and opposition figures from the body, Putin pulled back and dissenters like Ludmilla Alekseeva returned to the council. Finally, economic reforms, including privatization and thus some economic restructuring, appear on track.
In sum, many of the gains of Medvedev’s thaw remain, even as Putin rolls back others. The thaw can be said to have stagnated, exacerbating the crush of expectations raised in Russian society by Medvedev’s reforms; expectations that were already frustrated by Putin’s return. This is a formula for increased societal opposition, not less. Although Putin has attempted to restrain himself and tread on the opposition carefully, only full respect for, and dialogue with the opposition can avert further political instability.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program.