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Russia’s draft treason law: a new big freeze

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The draft law currently going through the Duma could definitely be regarded as tightening the screws on relationships between Russians and foreign organisations or individuals. A worrying turn of events, thinks Andrey Soldatov (photo: RIA Novosti Agency)

Andrei Soldatov
28 September 2012

Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?

For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

John Harington (1561-1612)

On 18 July Vladimir Putin had a meeting in the Kremlin’s St George’s Hall with a group of generals recently promoted to high-ranking posts.

 At such times the President usually formulates his aims and objectives for each of the security services during the year ahead. This year the new-old President did not break with tradition.

 The new nobility and its law

 From the FSB he required that they ‘deal in a timely way with attempts to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia.’ Many considered these words were a veiled criticism of the security service’s role during the recent disturbances: throughout the months of protest they took a back seat, staying stubbornly in the shadow of the Investigation Committee.  The ‘new nobility’, so assiduously protected by Vladimir Putin throughout his presidency, emerged as a not very effective instrument for dealing with the first serious political crisis of the Putin years. At the beginning of September rumours were even circulating among the officers that Putin had expressed himself more forcefully in private about the inefficiency of the FSB.

‘There are two main new points in the draft law: it considerably increases the number of people who can find themselves under FSB suspicion and gives the FSB carte blanche to monitor them as long as it considers necessary.’

By the middle of September the FSB had come up with a response to the presidential displeasure, deploying tactics that have served them so well over the last 12 years: they demanded new powers.

The draft law that recently passed its first reading changes the definition of high treason and was drawn up exclusively in response to requests from the FSB. Indeed, it was presented in the Duma by Yury Gorbunov, State Secretary, Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. There are two main new points in the draft law: it considerably increases the number of people who can find themselves under FSB suspicion and gives the FSB carte blanche to monitor them as long as it considers necessary.

The FSB will acquire new suspects because the definition of high treason (the already notorious ‘rendering consultancy and other services to….a foreign organisation’) has been expanded, but also because of Article 283. This new article stipulates punishment both for those who reveal a secret and for those to whom it is disclosed. Additionally, it means that so-called counterintelligence measures (i.e. covert searches, surveillance and wiretaps) can be visited on citizens suspected of these crimes, and that for crimes of the severity of treason (which is especially grave), there is virtually no time limit, whereas time frames for the investigation of ordinary crimes are fairly tightly regulated.

More of the same

Characteristically, in preparing the draft law, the ‘new nobility’ could not come up with anything that had not already been used for the protection of the regime by their communist predecessors. High treason is not a legal, but an ideological, concept and it appeared in the Russian Criminal Code as a direct quote from the Soviet codes.

‘High treason is not a legal, but an ideological, concept and it appeared in the Russian Criminal Code as a direct quote from the Soviet codes.’

In the 1922 Criminal Code the relevant section was called ‘On counter-revolutionary crimes’ and its remit included ‘any action aimed at overthrowing the power of worker-peasant soviets [councils] and the constitutionally-based existing worker-peasant government; also any action aimed at assisting that section of the international bourgeoisie which does not recognize the Communist system now replacing capitalism.’

The 1960 code, in its turn, saw the first appearance of the crime of ‘betrayal of the motherland’ or treason (Article 64).  Democratic countries may have treason laws (on the whole rarely invoked), but they do not contain a definition of the concept, since ‘treason’ is more an opinion of a crime, than a definition.

Battening down the hatches

Although the draft law has yet to complete its passage through the Duma, the final outcome is already clear: the FSB, not the most effective instrument in the battle with terrorism, is making a very good job of helping the Kremlin freeze the atmosphere.

‘… the FSB, not the most effective instrument in the battle with terrorism, is making a very good job of helping the Kremlin freeze the atmosphere.’

The Duma deputies’ unanimous support for the draft law is a signal that the Russian academic community will no longer have need of the international exchange of ideas and the wheels of state will have no need of the external checks and balances provided by peer review i.e. journalists and experts engaging in discussion of its actions.

Indeed, journalists and experts have been given to understand most clearly that they are superfluous to requirements, if not actually harmful, in the new, effectively hermetically-sealed conformation of the machine of state. 

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