New Law Redefines Extremist Activity

President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed of on controversial changes to the law on extremist activity that critics say could be used to silence opposition politicians and the press.

The revised law expands the definition of extremist activity to include public slander of a government official related to his duties, using or threatening violence against a government official or his family, and publicly justifying or excusing terrorism.

Supporters of the revised law argue that it will allow the state to combat racist and nationalist groups more effectively. Russia has seen a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia in recent years.

But critics of the legislation, which sailed through both houses of parliament this month, say it could be used to stifle opposition political parties during the election cycle that begins next year. A related bill, passed by the State Duma in a first reading July 8, bars parties from contesting an election if one or more of their members are convicted of extremism.

The revised law aroused fierce criticism both here and abroad. Opposition politicians, human rights activists and even Central Election Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov all criticized the expanded definition of extremism contained in the law. Leaders of the Group of Eight nations urged Putin not to sign the law during the recent summit in St. Petersburg, Ekho Moskvy reported.

Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of the Union of Right Forces, said Putin's decision to ignore the criticism and approve the amendments was part of a "dangerous trend."

"Almost any sort of political activity could be construed to fit the expanded definition of extremism, as was the case with 'Trotskyism' and 'anti-Soviet activity' in the Soviet era," Gozman said.

Gozman said his party believed the revised law was intended to tighten the Kremlin's control over the political process, not to combat extremist activity.

"It's obviously a crackdown," said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator think tank. Oreshkin said it was no coincidence that the Duma was considering Kremlin-sponsored changes to the country's election laws immediately after broadening the definition of extremism. While this new one-two punch provides Putin with a powerful new weapon against possible rivals, Oreshkin said the president would not rush to use it.

"The new laws will be triggered as necessary," Oreshkin said. "It's a gentle form of coercion designed to restrict the rights of dangerous political opponents."

If the new laws were interpreted to allow for extremism by association, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov Ч who has already declared his intention to run for president in 2008 Ч might be implicated, Oreshkin said. Earlier this month, Kasyanov took part in "The Other Russia" conference along with National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov and Viktor Anpilov, head of the Working Russia party, both of whom could well fall under the new definition of extremism, he said.

The new law also criminalizes incitement to extremist activity and public statements that legitimize or excuse such activity, whether these are made in person, in print or on audiotape or videotape. If these materials are "intended for public use," the people who produce them can be found guilty of extremist activity. This provision in the law could have a chilling effect on the independent media as they gear up for the 2007 and 2008 election season. If a prominent politician or party were convicted of extremism, the media would have to walk an extremely fine line in their coverage.

The law's public slander provision could also make objective coverage of the government more difficult Ч and risky. Yury Dzhibladze, president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, said the law would curtail freedom of speech because criticism of government officials could be interpreted as slander and punished as extremism under the new law. Protesters and demonstrators could be charged with extremism for resisting arrest, thus limiting freedom of assembly, he added. The law will also result in increased self-censorship in the mass media, Dzhibladze said.

Putin signed the revised law almost as soon as it landed on his desk because he was concerned about the rise of extremism and nationalism in Russia, said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.

Markov said the law would help prevent extremist parties from exploiting public resentment against unpopular reforms to their own ends, citing the replacement of welfare and other benefits with cash payments in 2005 as an example. The reform prompted angry demonstrations across the country.

Although the law is somewhat vague, it would not affect the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections or freedom of the press, he said.