Russia Turns New Law Against Kremlin Critics
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
MOSCOW, Sept. 25 -- Andrei Piontkovsky, one of Russia's most pungent political commentators and a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, was accused in court Tuesday of inciting violence against Russians, Jews and Americans as well as insulting and stirring feelings of inferiority in all three groups.
A Moscow district court opened hearings Tuesday on a charge by prosecutors that two of Piontkovsky's books -- "Unloved Country" and "For the Motherland! For Abramovich! Fire!" -- can be labeled "extremist" under a law ostensibly designed to stamp out racism and xenophobia. The title of his second book refers in part to Roman Abramovich, Russia's richest tycoon.
Piontkovsky, 67, a mathematician and arms control expert, turned to political writing in the 1990s. A leading figure in the opposition party Yabloko, he is a scathing critic of the rule of President Vladimir Putin, which he has described as a malevolent blend of authoritarianism and "bandit capitalism."
"This whole case is absurd," Piontkovsky said outside the courtroom. "It's very primitive. Stalin's prosecutors were sophisticated intellectuals compared to these people. . . . And isn't it also wonderful that the Russian government has begun to protect the feelings of Americans? That's a first."
In July, Putin signed amendments to the country's five-year-old law against extremism that expanded the definition of criminal activity to include such activities as the "public slander of public officials" and "humiliating national pride."
Human rights activists and opposition politicians have said the expanded law, pushed through parliament by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, is designed to crush legitimate criticism of the Kremlin and its allies.
The legislation was passed after officials dropped an effort to charge chess grandmaster and Putin critic Garry Kasparov with "extremism" following protest rallies that were violently broken up by police in April. The law at that time was not broad enough for the charges to stick.
Critics of the revised law charge that its provisions are so vague that authorities can now easily use it to stifle dissent and control independent journalism, rather than to fight racism. They fear that officials will use the law as a political tool in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and the presidential election in March.
"What we are witnessing here today is a consequence and demonstration of the atmosphere that the authorities have built in society, an atmosphere of persecution of political opponents and critics and those who think differently," said Yuri Schmidt, Piontkovsky's attorney, who has also represented imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
"Most probably the prosecutors act without a direct order from the Kremlin, but that is an example of how they understand their function in society," he added. "They believe that they should guard the power totally, and if there is even the slightest manifestation of disagreement with the regime they should be on alert."
In recent months, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a consistent critic of the authorities, and political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky, who was writing a book on Putin, have also been investigated for alleged extremist activity.
A newspaper in Saratov, southeast of Moscow, is being investigated for extremism and is facing closure after it ran a satirical photo of Putin in August. The image depicted Putin as a character from a popular Soviet TV series in which a Russian, working under the pseudonym Otto von Stirlitz, infiltrates the SS in Nazi Germany.