Don't Talk to Strangers ... or Foreigners

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Under a new amendment to the law on treason, which was sent to the State Duma on Dec. 12 for approval, I could get 12 to 20 years in prison for the article you are about to read.

The changes would give authorities extremely wide latitude to interpret what constitutes treason. This is how the old definition of treason reads: "a hostile act directed at damaging the external security of the Russian Federation." If the Duma approves the new amendment, the phrase "hostile act" would read simply "act," and "external security" would be broadened to "security." In addition, treason would also include the following activities: "rendering financial, technical, consultative or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organizations or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial and state integrity."

It is not surprising that the authorities cannot explain why these changes are necessary. They only offer a vague explanation that the current wording in the Criminal Code makes it extremely difficult for investigative agencies to prove the guilt of suspected traitors -- as if the law needs to be rewritten to help prosecutor's increase their conviction ratio.

Human rights advocates are in shock. The definition of an "act" of treason is so loosely defined that prosecutors and law enforcement agencies can interpret it any way they see fit. Moreover, even inactivity could qualify as an "act" of treason. Imagine that a journalist or political commentator submits to the foreign press an article that criticizes the constitutional amendment to extend the presidential term from four to six years or expresses the same idea to a foreign diplomat during an embassy reception. That could easily qualify under the new law as consulting a foreign organization on a subject directed against Russia's "constitutional order."

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And what if a person, after finding out that his fellow citizen has established a "suspicious contact" with a foreigner or foreign organization, fails to inform the police or Federal Security Service in a timely manner about the suspected traitor? His failure to act would also make him guilty of high treason under the new legislation.

Not so many years have passed since the time when Soviet citizens were prohibited, for all intents and purposes, from speaking to foreign diplomats or journalists. Those charged with having suspicious contacts with foreigners could easily land in jail. The KGB used these heavy-handed tactics to intimidate dissidents from "scavenging like jackals at foreign embassies," as then-President Vladimir Putin so colorfully expressed a year ago.

The most famous case was in 1978, when the KGB arrested Nathan Sharansky, a co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group who, after emigrating to Israel, served as the country's deputy prime minister and minister of several ministries. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for spying for the United States because he had met with an accredited foreign journalist and handed over information about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. At the same time that the Sharansky affair was unfolding, the impressionable, dedicated 26-year-old Putin was beginning his career in the KGB, getting his feet wet in the agency's Leningrad branch that was charged with combating political dissent.

It is noteworthy that the Duma received the draft amendment on treason on Dec. 12 -- Constitution Day. On the same day, the Duma approved a different set of legal amendments stipulating that cases involving serious crimes against the state, such as espionage and high treason, would no longer be heard by a jury.

What an amazing coincidence: Jury trials for state crimes are swept aside to make it easier to convict suspected enemies of the state, while at the same time the government tries to broaden the definition of treason to charge any political opponent of the regime, dissenting journalist or political analyst critical of the government.

I can't help but be reminded of Dec. 1, 1934 -- the black date in Russia's history that marked the beginning of Stalin's Great Terror. That was the day Politburo member Sergei Kirov was murdered under circumstances that even today remain unclear. Kirov was Stalin's closest associate and the only person who could have become a serious rival for head of state under the right circumstances.

On that same day, a law was passed that made the legal prosecution of "enemies of the people" as simple and powerful as a gunshot to the head: The investigation could last not more than 10 days; the list of charges was given to the defendant not more than one day before the trial; cases were heard in absentia, without the prosecutor or the defendant present; the verdict was final with no opportunity for appeal or clemency; and verdicts requiring execution were carried out immediately.

Of course, today's Russia is a long way from Stalin's repression. But it is obvious that the authorities are frightened by the scale of the crisis -- the financial losses, the sharp drop in industrial output and oil prices, the impending rise in unemployment, high inflation and the general social unease. It is equally clear that the authorities are considering various possible responses -- including harsh repressive measures against opposition speeches and protests by citizens.

As Konstantin Sonin, professor of economics at the the Russian Economic School, said: "There are major contradictions in our political system. Putin wields a great deal of centralized political authority, but the government's level of repression is relatively minor. As result of the crisis, however, Putin might strengthen his authority significantly, including instituting protectionist measures in the economy and increasing military preparedness. The Kremlin's most powerful 'anti-crisis measure' may turn out to be the creation of a more authoritarian and repressive regime."

The restriction of the application of trial by jury and the introduction of dubious amendments to the Criminal Code are definitive proof that any hopes for more liberal policies under President Dmitry Medvedev are illusory. An episode that took place in the Kremlin on Dec. 12 is telling. During the president's speech to the Association of Russian Jurists to mark the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the current Constitution, Roman Dobrokhotov, a young opposition member, stood up and protested the Kremlin's efforts to extend the presidential term by yelling "Shame!" Just when security guards began taking Dobrokhotov from the hall, Medvedev tried to stop them, saying, "You don't need to take him away! Let him listen. After all, that is why we adopted the Constitution -- so that people would have the right to express their opinions." But the guards didn't listen to Medvedev and promptly whisked the heckler out of the hall.

Putin's authoritarian vertical-power structure has become like a streamroller that is gaining speed and force on a downhill slope. It has become so powerful and institutionalized at all government levels that nobody -- including the president -- is able to stop it.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.