Duma Imposes Protest Crackdown

Russia’s parliament has passed a law imposing draconian fines on demonstrators, aimed at curtailing anti-Kremlin protests in a political crackdown following the return of Vladimir Putinas president last month.

Vladimir Putin
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Vladimir Putin

The Duma, or lower house of parliament, dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party, passed the law at midnight on Tuesday with a final vote of 241-147, despite efforts by opposition deputies to delay the vote using a combination of filibustering and legislative foot dragging. It must now be voted on by the upper house, or senate, and signed into law by Mr. Putin, both of which are formalities.

The law proposes to increase fines on those taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations—potentially to 300,000 rubles ($9,000) for individual citizens and 1 million rubles for organizers, compared with the current 1,000-5,000 rubles. Even mentioning an upcoming demonstration on the internet could mean a fine.

The law has been harshly criticized by human rights groups and threatens to radicalize public opinion rather than encouraging people to stay at home in upcoming demonstrations.

“Most people who take part in such protests have very little money,” said Ilya Ponomarev, a deputy from the opposition Just Russia party. “Whether its 5,000 rubles or 500,000, they can’t pay. So it doesn’t really matter and will only make them mad.”

The frustration was clear in many sharp verbal exchanges in the chamber leading up to the vote. Gennady Gudkov of Just Russia told the chamber: “In the past, tightening the screws in Russia has only caused bloodshed. This is a sure path to a civil war. You’re assuming responsibility for the country’s future and pushing it toward a crisis, collapse and bloodshed.’’

The outnumbered opposition nonetheless tried to buy time, proposing around 400 amendments in an effort to delay the vote.

“The opposition is trying to drown the law on demonstration in amendments,” declared Vesti, the nightly TV news program.

However, with United Russia’s 53 percent of the Duma seats, the outcome was all but assured.

Valery Pligin, a United Russia deputy, responded at one point to the numerous criticisms, saying: “There is no other goal of this law than to save lives and protect people and their property.”

Outside the Duma, police formed a cordon on Tuesday after 18 protesters, including Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the opposition Yabloko party, were arrested for demonstrating outside the building.

All eyes are on the next major demonstration, planned for June 12, which has so far not received legal permission from Moscow city authorities. The last such demonstration on May 6 ended in violence after police abruptly cordoned off most of the area reserved for the demonstration near the Kremlin, and some protesters attacked police, sparking a bloody melee in which 17 protesters and three riot police ended up in hospital, according to Interfax news agency.

Since Mr. Putin’s re-election in March, the Kremlin has backtracked on promises to liberalize the political system made under former president Dmitry Medvedev in December. A law relaxing the rules on the creation of political parties and one allowing election of provincial governors, for example, were watered down in the Duma.

“Putin says we don’t negotiate with extremists, and he doesn’t differentiate between the opposition and extremists,” said Mr. Ponomarev, explaining Mr. Putin’s hardline stance.

Mr. Putin discussed the new law during a summit with EU leaders in St Petersburg on Monday, saying Russia must implement “norms of European jurisprudence, which are accepted in other European countries for the regulation of such activities”.

Sir Graham Watson and Astrid Thors, members of the European parliament, circulated a statement on Tuesday urging Mr. Putin not to sign the law. “As a signatory to the Council of Europe, Russia must abide by European standards of democratic participation for its citizens if it wants to build a relationship based on shared values as much as on common interests,” they said.