A storm of protest has broken out in Russian political circles over, well, protesting.
A new law sharply raising fines for unsanctioned political demonstrations, in effect criminalising them, was passed this week by both houses of parliament and awaits signature by Vladimir Putin, president again. Opponents of the law are appealing to Mr Putin not to sign it because they say it is a) unconstitutional and b) repressive.
Mr Putin left open a narrow window of hope for opponents on Monday when he told EU leaders during a summit in St Petersburg that the law must implement “norms of European jurisprudence, which are accepted in other European countries for the regulation of such activities”, and said he would not sign it otherwise.
In fact, the law’s supporters say, it is very much like other laws that exist on the books of many European countries. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy from the United Russia party, said the fines foreseen by the law were actually in the mid range among European countries. The Russian law would raise maximum fines for individuals participating in an illegal meeting from Rbs5,000 (£100) to Rbs300,000 (£5,900) and for organisations to Rbs1m. Switzerland, he says, has maximum fines of Sfr110,000, or almost £75,000.
Most other countries are not so draconian – fines in the US are set by individual states but average about $3,000, he said.
But while the law is similar to those of western countries, the law’s detractors say Russia’s reality is not, and that is what makes things tricky.
For starters, average income in Russia is Rbs20,700 a month, or about £5,000 a year, which is 4-5 times less than many countries with which it is being compared. Top fines in the UK are £5,000, compared to Russia’s fine of Rbs300,000 (equivalent, remember, to £5,900). But measured in terms of ability to pay they are several times lower: median wages in the UK are £26,000.
“It is completely obvious [that] the size of the suggested fines are completely out of proportion to the material circumstances of most citizens,” said the chairman of Mr Putin’s own Advisory Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, in a letter sent to Russia’s upper house, which passed the bill on Wednesday after the Duma, or lower house, passed it on Tuesday night.
Senate Speaker Valentina Matviyenko told the press on Thursday that the letter never reached her – to which Mr Fedotov replied he would have hand-delivered it if he had known the internal mail was so bad.
The Council also said the law “criminalises a basic constitutional right – the right to free assembly” in a document published on its website on Thursday. It raises fines to levels considered “criminal” rather than “administrative”, (the maximum administrative fine is Rbs5,000, after which it is considered a criminal penalty).
Masha Lipman, political analyst at Carnegie Moscow Centre, said appealing to “European norms” was often resorted to as a rhetorical tool in Russian politics but “to say that we are emulating western models with this law is just hypocrisy”.
The problem in Russia was not the laws but the arbitrary use of them, she said. “We have very selective application of legislation. It is routine that courts only listen to the police and not to detainees … arbitrary and even illegal application of the law in Russia is quite common.”
Thus the potential misuse of the law and its intended role in stifling protests against Kremlin rule is what worries critics. “It is being rushed into force in such a way that it could be construed as an attempt by the government to defend itself from the citizenry,” said Ms Lipman.