Alexander Barinov, RAPSI
2012 has been a big year for Russia’s lawmakers. While at this point the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, has passed only slightly more than half the number of laws it had passed by this time last year (230 in 2012, compared to 430 in 2011), 2012’s legislative initiatives have packed a powerful punch, and have been subjected to unparalleled international media scrutiny.
Russia’s “Law on Rallies” was written and passed at record speed. The package of amendments was submitted to the State Duma in the immediate aftermath of the massive riots that rocked Moscow’s city center on May 6, and was enacted in early June on the eve of the next large-scale protest.
The law stipulates fines ranging between the tens- and hundreds-of-thousands of rubles for a slew of protest violations. Stricter regulations were also introduced with regard to the destruction of property, attempts to conceal one’s face, the possession of alcoholic beverages, and public intoxication within the context of public gatherings.
Individuals staging their own one-man protests may also be subject to punishment. Previously, solo protests were the only variety that could be staged without advance-permission.
The law has not yet lived up to the opposition’s worst fears. When it was initially passed, many feared that it would essentially serve to prohibit all legal demonstrations.
A law was passed last summer imposing special regulations against non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving financial aid from abroad. Such regulations included restrictions on their activities, the creation of stricter reporting standards and government oversight, and the establishment of administrative punishments (including fines of up to one million rubles) and criminal liability (up to four years in prison) for violations of the new rules.
The law stipulated that all recipients of foreign aid should be publicly labeled “foreign agents.” Naturally, politicians and public figures associated with foreign-funded companies were displeased with the law.
Despite a wave of indignation, the law was quickly passed.
In another high-profile move, the Duma moved to expand the scopes of high treason, espionage, and the disclosure of state secrets. From now on, spying or high treason may apply to any assistance provided to any foreigner, if such might compromise the “security” of the Russian Federation as a whole, whereas before the information would have had to have been deemed a threat to Russia’s “external security.” Under the new law, these organizations do not have to be deemed “obviously hostile,” as previously required by the Criminal Code.
The new law has introduced liability for the “illegal acquisition of information constituting a state secret.” Moreover, punishment for the disclosure of such information may now threaten not only those who are privy to state secrets because of their official positions, as was the case before, but also those who learned about such secrets by “different” means.
Significantly, there are lots of “different” means to learn a state secret, even unwittingly. According to established practice in Russia, information that constitutes a state secret may be published in the media or on the Internet or be mentioned by an official in a report without formally being declassified.
Another high-profile law, which came into force in September, is a law on the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development. The law was approved back in 2010.
Under the law, producers and disseminators of any information – newspapers, magazines, television and radio broadcasts, movies, web sites, etc. – must assign a rating to it or report on the restrictions on all types of information for various groups of minors. The ratings – appropriate for children of up-to-six, 12, or 16 years – are to be assigned depending on how much psychological harm the texts or images could cause to children, especially if they contain adult language or scenes of violence, or may encourage the use of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.
There were heated debates this summer over the amendments to the law providing for the formation of an Internet registry in Russia of online resources that disseminate child pornography, advertise drugs, and promote suicide.
The Internet community strongly opposed these measures, viewing them as an attempt to censor the Internet in Russia.
The registry was launched this November. During one month it blacklisted more than 500 pages with dubious content and blocked over a hundred web sites. Some of them were allowed back online after “correcting mistakes.”
Education of drivers
This year lawmakers paid particular attention to drivers, especially after a tragedy in Moscow on September 22, when a drunk driver crashed into a bus stop, killing five orphans and their two caretakers. Several bills were passed in response.
Some proposals called for tougher sentences for drunk driving, including criminal liability. It was suggested that a fatal traffic accident should be punishable by a prison term of up to 15 years. Other proposals suggested introducing a mandatory drug test for those applying for drivers licenses, and a penalty card with a limit that, once exceeded, could lead to driver’s license being revoked.
However, none of these radical proposals has yet been adopted.
Taming the fans
For the entire year, sports fans have been watching with interest as lawmakers focused on a law on fans. The authorities are hoping it will allow them to maintain order at stadiums, primarily during football or hockey matches. Fights between fans or with the police, racist remarks directed at players, accidents caused by the use of pyrotechnics – all of these have long become routine at sports events.
The authors of the bill suggest introducing a new system whereby stewards rather than the police would ensure order in the stands.
Fans will have to abide by special rules similar to traffic rules. Violators will be subjected to fines, administrative arrest and – perhaps most cutting – a temporary ban on attending sports events.
In general, lawmakers are supportive of this initiative and plan to review the bill in early 2013.
Thinking about voters
The party and election systems in Russia underwent substantial changes this year. Mass protests by the opposition aimed at electoral reform (among other things) in the aftermath of last year’s purportedly marred Duma elections. Several laws have been passed in response.
The new laws have simplified the procedure for registering political parties. The threshold of signatures required for registering a party has been drastically reduced from 50,000 to 500 people. As a result, the number of registered political parties has soared from seven to several dozen.
Meanwhile, direct gubernatorial elections have been reinstated. Lawmakers had previously repealed such direct elections in 2005, replacing them with presidential appointments.
In his annual address to the Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin suggested returning to the system of mixed elections to the State Duma (which ended in 2005), under which deputies are elected both from party lists and single-representative districts. The majority of politicians have backed this idea. So the reform of Russia’s electoral system will likely to continue.
Warning slanderers and swindkers
Last July an article on slander was reinstated in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. In December 2011, the State Duma passed a law to decriminalize slander and reclassify it as an administrative offence.
Yet another novelty concerns crimes like “swindling,” “embezzlement” or “misappropriation” and “property damage liability through cheating or abuse of trust.” Until recently, investigative bodies could initiate criminal proceedings based on their own information and at their discretion, but now such cases can only be initiated based on a complaint from a victim.
Respect for the courts
The Duma is completing its discussion of a bill to introduce a new system of remuneration for judges. It provides not only for changing the rules for the accrual of funds but also for restructuring the internal hierarchy of the judiciary. The number of qualification classes assigned to judges depending on their positions, experience, professional skills and other merits will be increased from six to 10. The authors of the bill believe this will enhance the prestige of the judicial profession and will increase the average judge’s salary by about 30%.
Civil Code: delayed revolution
Work on a bill to introduce amendments to the Civil Code of the Russian Federation has been ongoing since 2008. The authors of the bill suggest a new version of the most fundamental provisions of the Civil Code, including those that regulate corporate relations, rights of ownership, contractual and binding relations, finances and intellectual property, including online copyrights.
The bill was submitted to the Duma in April and passed in the first reading shortly after. Some of the new rules were expected to take effect on September 1.
Later, passage of a new version of the Civil Code was postponed until the fall. In November, lawmakers abruptly changed course. The large bill was divided into several smaller bills that will be passed individually.