Successive Russian leaders have regarded the law as an instrument of the state rather than a constraint on it. Reflecting on the recent trial and imprisonment of Russian band Pussy Riot and moves to oust dissenting politician Gennady Gudkov, Mark Galeotti argues that while further expansion of Russia’s state security apparatus is planned by the Kremlin, opposition, including from legal elites, remains relatively undeterred.
As of writing, Russian parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov is on political death row. On Monday a parliamentary committee called for him to be stripped of office and on Friday, the dominant United Russia bloc will mobilise a vote in the State Duma to push this through. Criminal charges could even follow. A bluff former KGB officer, he was an insider representing Just Russia, a leftist party that notionally stood in opposition to United Russia but in practice was part of a cosy cartel. Then he began to show dissatisfaction with the status quo and sympathy with the opposition movement that was beginning to emerge in Russia – and things started to go badly for him. First, the authorities targeted his private security firm, which was investigated by everyone from the tax service to the Moscow architecture committee. The police announced that they had discovered irregularities, and the company was essentially destroyed. Then, he was charged with ethics violations, running and lobbying for a business while a legislator. True or not, there are infamously many other deputies who certainly do this, but it is Gudkov who has been made a special case.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once demanded of his peers “who’s the boss, us or the law?” Successive Russian leaders have regarded the law as an instrument of the state, not a constraint upon it, though Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008-2012 presidency did edge the country closer to a law-governed state. Like his patron, predecessor and successor Vladimir Putin, Medvedev read law at Leningrad State University. Unlike Putin, Medvedev seems genuinely to have internalised some of its implicit values. He may not have been a liberal, but many of the reforms he enacted were directed towards codifying informal practices. Even his 2010 law expanding the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) at least created explicit limits to them.
Those days now seem very distant. Increasingly, the Kremlin’s intent appears to be to rewrite and (ab)use the laws freely as a tool to marginalise, silence or intimidate. The recent trial of the band Pussy Riot for their brief and evidently scandalising “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour certainly hit the global headlines, thanks to an irresistible combination of striking visuals and celebrity endorsement. A thoroughly one-sided trial saw them sentenced to two years in a penal colony for an offence which, by comparison, would have at worst seen them fined in the UK.
However, this is hardly the most flagrant, or most significant recent such case. Igor Kalyapin, chairman of the Russian NGO Committee against Torture, has repeatedly been threatened with prosecution for “disclosing state secrets” for his allegations about abuses by the security forces in Chechnya. Activist Maria Baronova has had her flat ransacked by rifle-toting police and social services question her care of her child. More broadly, NGOs receiving support from abroad must now call themselves “foreign agents” and the fines for unapproved protests have been increased 150-fold.
This fits into a pattern reflecting wider structural changes within the state’s security apparatus. Most important has been the rise of the Investigatory Committee (SK) (the so-called “Russian FBI”) and its volatile chief, Alexander Bastrykin. Under Medvedev, Bastrykin – another of Putin’s Leningrad State University classmates – seemed an advocate of the law-governed state. However, after Putin’s return, he instead began refashioning himself as the Kremlin’s attack dog. While the police and even FSB appear anxious not to create martyrs, Bastrykin (who memorably had to apologise for his “emotional outburst” when he threatened a critical journalist with death) has hounded figures such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak. The SK was also a prime mover in Gudkov’s inquisition.
They have done well as a result. The SK is about to expand dramatically, taking over most of the investigators in the police and the Federal Anti-Drug Service. They will more than double in size, from 23,000 to some 60,000 staff. Meanwhile, Timur Valiulin, the heavy-handed chief of the Moscow police’s notorious E Centre – responsible for controlling “extremism,” which in practice largely means opposition – has been promoted. This key player in the Pussy Riot prosecution is now head of GUPE, the interior ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Extremism. Valiulin will be in a position to ensure that the police and the SK operate against the opposition in concert.
At present, the Kremlin certainly seems the boss of the law. However, with new protests called for Saturday, these moves seem not to be deterring the opposition. Less visibly, but equally significant, they are also disconcerting members of the elite – including judges and police – who themselves believe in the law-governed state. The rise of such a constituency for legalism even within the state apparatus may prove to be one of Medvedev’s most unexpected and, to Putin, unwelcome legacies.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Mark Galeotti – New York University
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs and the chair of the SCPS Center for Global Affairs at New York University, as well as an associate member of its History and Russian & Slavic Studies departments. He works on modern Russian politics and security affairs with a particular interest in crime and corruption, especially showcased in his blog, In Moscow’s Shadows. His most recent book was the edited collection The Politics of Security in Modern Russia (Ashgate, 2010) and he is currently working on a history of Russian organised crime for Yale University Press. He blogs at http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/.