Russia Turns New Law Against Kremlin Critics
Prominent Political Commentator in Jeopardy Over Alleged 'Extremism' in His Books

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

The photo ran with a caption that coyly referred to the possibility that Putin might serve a third consecutive term. The Russian constitution requires that he step down in March.

Prosecutors apparently objected to the fact that Putin is seen in Stirlitz's SS uniform, although most Russians view the character as a dramatic hero.

"It's not black PR or anything, we simply wanted to entertain our readers," Sergei Mikhailov, chief editor of the Saratov Reporter, said in a telephone interview. "Everybody understands the joke."

Prosecutors in the southern city of Krasnodar, acting on the instructions of the FSB, a successor agency to the KGB, first brought charges against Piontkovsky. But the charges were thrown out when a judge ruled that there was no evidence of extremist incitement in the books.

Piontkovsky's Yabloko party had distributed the books in the region, and the FSB threatened to shut down the party's local office unless it stopped handing them out. Piontkovsky's books are almost impossible to find in bookstores here.

Prosecutors in Moscow subsequently applied to have the books deemed extremist, which would open Piontkovsky to criminal prosecution and could lead to the banning of the Yabloko party for extremist activity, Schmidt said.

On Tuesday, the prosecutor, who declined to otherwise discuss the case or give her name, cited two expert reports, one "linguistic" and one "social-psychological," as proof that Piontkovsky's prose was extremist.

"The social-psychological report says that the book contains statements inciting inferiority among people of Jewish, American, Russian and other nationalities," she said, referring to "Unloved Country." "Based on the evaluation reports, the book is recognized as containing features of extremism."

Schmidt asked the prosecutor to "please quote those statements, please give us concrete examples of the statements that you've just mentioned. Could you please give us references and page numbers of the book where those statements are."

"I am not an expert and I do not have a personal opinion," said the prosecutor, a response that drew open scorn from the defense attorney.

The reports cite two small sections of the book as evidence of extremism.

In one report, Piontkovsky is accused of extremism because he creates a fictional conversation in which Putin calls some apparent critics "shameful goats." That report also alleges that Piontkovsky's use of the words "incite hatred" was itself an incitement to hatred.

What the report failed to mention, according to Alexander Kobrinsky, a professor of philology at St. Petersburg State University and an expert witness for the defense, is that Piontkovsky was actually quoting Putin when he used the words "incite hatred."

"Any features of extremism should be demonstrated by concrete sentences or statements," Kobrinsky said. "There is nothing like that. . . . Unlike the experts, I read Piontkovsky's books."

Neither the prosecutor nor the reports she cited explained why Piontkovsky's work incites hatred against Americans and Jews.

Piontkovsky said he believes it relates to a section in one book where he criticized a Russian politician who said the radical Palestinian group Hamas is not recognized as a terrorist organization by Russia because it doesn't commit terrorist acts in Russia.

"Of course, they're not terrorists because they only kill Jews and Americans," Piontkovsky wrote sarcastically.

Judge Svetlana Klimova ruled that she needed another expert opinion on the books before deciding if they are extremist. She ordered the Russian Federal Center of Legal Expertise to carry it out. The center is part of the Justice Ministry.

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