This last Friday, the Duma passed legislation no. 364427-5, “On Changing Federal FSB Law in the Russian Federation’s Code of Administrative Violations.” The law’s first public reading was on June 3rd. Before finally being accepted last week, the bill underwent another two drafts. After the first draft, a series of changes were made to the legislation after some lawmakers and human rights organizations complained that the bill bestowed KGB-like powers on the FSB. Basically, the legislation enables the FSB to warn citizens and organizations that they are suspected of (future) action that will threaten Russian national security.
So what were the changes made to that first version of this law?
Paragraphs 3-10, Clause 2, Article 1
- Instead of granting the FSB “special prophylactic measures,” the law now reads simply “prophylactic measures” without mentioning ‘special.’
- The following language was removed entirely: “The text of official FSB warnings can be published in the mass media without the approval of the accused individual” and “without the approval of state branches, administrative bodies, institutions, organizations, and public associations [NGOs].” Under the revised bill, the FSB is still able to alert NGOs (obshchestvennye ob’edineniia) when it perceives a national security threat, but gone is that specific language granting the right to publicize these warnings even without the accused’s permission.
- Language was added to specify the accused’s right “to contest and appeal any official warnings before a court and federal authorities.”
- Two specific mentions of legal responsibility for fulfilling the demands of official warnings were removed. The following text was cut: “Noncompliance with the requirements of [FSB] demands is subject to penalties established by the laws of the Russian Federation.”
- Persons receiving warnings no longer have to appear in person before the FSB. The following text was removed from the bill: “For an official warning, the accused can be called [to appear before] bodies of the FSB.”
That’s what was changed, and here’s the most controversial bit (Article 2, Clause 1, Section B) that wasn’t revised (which will become federal law when President Medvedev signs it):
Disobeying the lawful orders or demands of a member of the FSB in connection with the execution of official duties, as well as interfering with the execution of official duties, is punishable by an administrative fine on citizens in the amount of 500-1,000 rubles or administrative arrest for a period up to fifteen days.
There has been some debate about the revisions discussed above. Just what exactly is the FSB allowed to do under the bill’s final language? The Duma removed the text empowering the FSB to force people to appear for formal warnings, and it cut the language that explicitly enabled the FSB to fine individuals who failed to answer FSB summons. But the text in Article 2 of the law does attach concrete police powers to the Duma’s “prophylactic measures” in the form of explicit penalties. The FSB may not have the express right to summon a suspected criminal, but it is enabled to fine or jail anyone guilty of “disobeying lawful orders or demands.”
The final draft of the legislation is basically vaguer — not more limited — than the original version. The Duma isn’t saying outright that the FSB can call people in or issue fines for not showing up, but it is saying that the FSB can penalize anyone who disrupts their work — work that now includes the right to confront (suspected) criminals before they ever commit a crime. This entire process is extra-judicial, though there was one revision (mentioned above) that specifically inserted the right to appeal any prophylactic penalty.
Given the sinister Minority-Report overtones of this legal initiative (which first sprung up in the aftermath of the Moscow metro bombings last March, much like the American Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks), eyes have turned to Dmitri Medvedev, whose liberal admirers have been hoping he’ll refuse to sign the bill. The same naivety was at work when Medvedev pardoned four Russians convicted of espionage earlier this month in a spy swap with the United States. Many wondered longingly if the release of Igor Sutyagin was a sign of political thaw. Next they dreamed that the additional sixteen men pardoned along with the four spies might signal a coming wave of liberalization and amnesty for white collar crooks and thieves — possibly even for Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself. Lev Ponomarev, a member of For Human Rights in Moscow, told the NYT, “If [Medvedev] signs [the law], it will be a big step toward losing his potential supporters.” He later added, “This is a pretty important moment.”
Perhaps thanks to his now-constant Twitter use, the Russian president seems to have learned of the buzz surrounding this issue. Just as the Duma approved a final version of the bill (which goes to the Federal Assembly on Monday and then to the president’s desk), Medvedev decided to answer a journalist’s question about the legislation in a joint press conference with Angela Merkel. Here is what Dima had to say:
The situation is extremely simple. But I don’t really want to comment now on the changes in the legislation that are currently underway. But [...] first I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that this is our internal legal system, and not an international act. Second, every country has the right to its own legal system, including its own intelligence agency. And we will do this. And what’s happening now — I want you to know — is being done on my direct instructions.
In response to Medvedev’s comments, Yan Rachinskii, a leading member of the human rights group “Memorial,” told Svobodnaia Pressa that he now fully expects the law to be passed. However, he added the following: “But, again, if you strictly follow what he said, it sounds as though he was the one to initiate but not author this. To what degree he’s really aware of the exact text isn’t clear.”
In other words, even after Medvedev publicly affirmed his central role in this project, some people continue to fancy that he is still really, deep down inside, a Western-style liberal. Ellen Barry at the NYT writes that “it was not clear whether [Medvedev] meant the drafting of the bill or its subsequent revision” when he claimed to have ordered “what is happening now.” I’ll admit: there is a lack of clarity in his remarks. In such moments of uncertainty, though, other people might have looked to the rest of his statement. They might even have stumbled onto his defense of national sovereignty and a state’s inalienable right to build and empower a police force. In that context, Medvedev seems to be taking credit for more than just the watering down of the FSB law — indeed, he appears to be endorsing the entire process.
That this bill will become law should come as no surprise to any American who lived during the 9/11 attacks and watched Congress rush through the Patriot Act. It took the U.S. government about seven weeks to pass that piece of legislation. The Duma has responded to the Moscow metro acts in six. While the exact police powers created in these post-terrorism laws may not be identical, this is clearly a phenomenon that’s neither uniquely American nor Russian. For that reason, the passage of the FSB law could have been an opportunity to recognize how much the U.S. shares in common with Russia. Indeed, Medvedev’s trumpeting of national sovereignty as a justification for expanding the state’s right to intimidation and violence sounds like a page out of the Bush Doctrine (or, I’m sure, the Sarah Palin Doctrine — even if hers is scribbled in crayon).
Instead, this is being treated either as another chance to whip Russia for backwardness or as a bizarre linguistic exercise with the aim of vindicating Dmitri Medvedev from implication in any heavy-handedness. Unfortunately, the FSB law, which is indeed heavy-handed, appears to have the weight of Medvedev behind it. Perhaps even more unfortunate is the fact that legislation like this — empowering the police after terrorism — is Russian as much as it is American. Or maybe there’s nothing dispiriting about any of this, and we should all rejoice that governments are so responsive to public fear and panic.
Whatever the emotional or moral response to extra-judicial wiretapping, or extra-judicial fines, or extra-judicial incarceration, legislation no. 364427-5 is as captivating as it should be instrumental to remembering that Russia is one of many sovereign countries, and that Dmitri Medvedev pursues (perceived) national interests above all else.