Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Russian treason law opposed by Medvedev?

Last month, I wrote about a proposed law in Russia that would make the definition of "treason" disturbing broad and vague, and reminiscent of Soviet-era statutes that outlawed dissent. As I explained, Russian law currently defines treason as "hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation from foreign threats." The bill, proposed by the government (i.e. the cabinet headed by Vladimir Putin), amended that definition to include "rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood." The definition of espionage was also broadened to include broad categories of passing potentially sensitive information to foreigners even with no intent to commit espionage, giving rise to concern that the new law would drastically inhibit scientific contacts between Russia and the West.

Well, according to a report in yesterday's Nezavisimaya Gazeta (link to Russian-language article), the draft law has run into opposition from members of parliament who are close to President Dmitry Medvedev.

NG reporter Ivan Rodin writes that on Tuesday, the State Duma Committee on Legislation shelved discussion of the draft law toughening the treason and espionage statutes:

According to NG's sources, the revision pushed by the Federal Security Service [FSB] has incurred the displeasure of the President's team. Consequently, the Duma will try to soften the new definition of "treason."
As late as Monday, this law was still on the agenda of the Duma Committee on Legislation. The deputies were supposed to discuss the law and recommend that the Duma vote to pass it. However, yesterday, the draft law was removed from the agenda of the committee meeting. The chairman of the Committee on Legislation, Pavel Krasheninnikov, commented on the situation very reluctantly. When the NG correspondent asked how the committee members felt about the draft law, Krasheninnikov replied, "Well, you can see it's been taken off the agenda for discussion. What does that tell you?" The NG correspondent speculated that this could only mean one thing: additional consultations were being conducted. The head of the committee nodded to confirm this supposition. However, he was unwilling to explain just what was wrong with the document. The only thing he permitted himself to say was that the draft law created too much room for interpretation of the "spy" statutes of the Criminal Code.

Krasheninnikov told NG that the bill would not be resubmitted to the committee earlier than February. Rodin also writes that another MP, Alexander Moskalets, first deputy chairman of the Duma committee on constitutional legislation, initially refused to comment on the bill because he had not read it, but upon reading it told him that "they were asking for too much":

Moskalets poitned out that even members of parliament could easily become targets of the expanded statutes. "Let's say a journalist from a Western publication wants an interview. But I have no idea to whom some of the information I give him could be passed. That means I'm supposed to just keep my mouth shut. Besides, we receive foreign delegations, and we ourselves travel abroad and maintain regular contact with our colleagues in other countries." After reading the new version of articles 275 and 276 of the Criminal Code, Moskalets was reminded not even of late Soviet legislation but of the Criminal Code of the 1920s and '30s, expanded by numerous decrees on the very same subject of treason.

Meanwhile, Duma sources pointed out to NG that it was no accident that Pavel Krasheninnikov was the one working so hard to get the definitions narrowed. He is believed to be one of the deputies closest to Dmitry Medvedev. The current President, who has declared himself a champion of the law and a defender of the rights of citizens, will have a hard time signing this legislation to make it the law of the land. But he can't refuse to sign it either, considering that it was proposed at the initiative of Vladimir Putin. For the same reason, the Duma cannot reject the bill, or make drastic changes in it. That means only one option remains to resolve this unpleasant situation: to persuade the government to resubmit the bill with some changes.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin told Rodin that Medvedev does not want to lose his "liberal" image, but cannot veto the law because that would be "a demonstration of conflict." Thus, "changing the bill by quiet bureaucratic methods is in the interests of both sides of the power tandem."

Could this be a sign of the long-awaited fissure in the tandem? In the past two weeks, there have been several articles on reputable Russian websites claiming that there are signs of a weakening of Putin's position and of a power struggle between Kremlin factions which may result in Putin's removal. Of course, the NG article makes it clear that neither Medvedev nor the Duma can openly reject a law backed by Putin. On the other hand, if "Duma sources" -- presumably ones close to Medvedev -- are circulating the story that the measure is being rejected, albeit in a face-saving way, this could be a pretty effective strategy to embarrass Putin.

Or could it be the once-predicted "good cop, bad cop" strategy of the Putin/Medvedev team, in which Medvedev creates the appearance of liberalism by ensuring a less draconian version of a new law?

Stay tuned, as always...


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