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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Critics See Trouble in Duma

A group of opposition activists recently visited 25 printing houses before finding one willing to put out a newspaper calling for an anti-Kremlin street protest.

It may get even tougher if a bill on extremism, which comes up for a crucial second reading in the State Duma on Friday, is passed into law.

The bill introduces fines for printers and publishers that distribute literature deemed extremist. It also stiffens the penalties for crimes like hooliganism and creating public disturbances if a court decides they were committed out of extremist motives.

Although the bill is ostensibly aimed at skinheads and other radical groups, opposition activists fear it could be used against them -- especially in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.

"This will increase the arbitrariness of law enforcement agencies and courts," said Marina Litvinovich, a spokeswoman for The Other Russia, an opposition umbrella group that has organized a series of street protests and faced trouble getting its newspapers printed.

"They try to accuse us of extremism for just about any kind of behavior. If you're walking down the street, and you yell 'make way, make way' when the OMON riot police have you surrounded, that already counts as extremism," Litvinovich said.

One of the bill's provisions increases the penalty for acts of hooliganism that are committed out of extremist motives. Perpetrators could face up to six years in prison. The current Criminal Code allows sentences of up to five years.

In recent years, charges of hooliganism have been filed against members of the outlawed National Bolshevik Party for pranks like throwing eggs at officials and hanging an anti-Putin banner on the Rossiya Hotel.

Sergei Belyak, a lawyer who has represented the National Bolsheviks, said the bill was an attempt to put the political opposition on the same level as common criminals. "There used to be a law on anti-Soviet activities, on spreading anti-Soviet views. Well, now there's no Soviet system, so they've turned everyone into extremists," Belyak said.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, State Duma Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov, denied that the bill was meant to suppress legitimate political activity. "We tried to make things as clear as possible to distinguish legitimate opposition from extremism," said Yemelyanov, a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

He said he hoped the bill would pass a third reading in the Duma before the end of the spring session. Duma deputies will go on vacation in mid-July.

The legislation will be in place when electoral campaigns start heating up this fall if it passes the three Duma readings and is approved by the Federation Council and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December, while the presidential vote is scheduled for March 2008.

"The rush to pass this bill is connected with the fact that they want the law in place by this fall, that is, when the electoral campaign begins," Litvinovich said.

In another provision that could spell trouble for opposition activists, the bill introduces fines for the legal entities -- that is, printers and publishers -- that distribute literature deemed extremist. Currently, only the individuals who are responsible for such material -- such as authors or editors -- can be held accountable for it.

The authorities have confiscated the books and newspapers of various Kremlin critics on suspicion of extremist content. Last month, for example, the FSB seized 150,000 copies of an Other Russia newspaper from a St. Petersburg printing house to examine them for extremism.

Litvinovich said printers were already afraid to touch the group's newspapers. The last time that The Other Russia tried to print its literature in Moscow, she said, it was rejected by 25 printing houses before finding one that was willing to take the order. "This bill will only add to the fear that's been there for a long time already," she said.

Much of the debate over extremism legislation has hinged on the definition of what, exactly, constitutes extremism. The new bill appears to broaden the definition by inserting language from a controversial 2002 extremism law into the Criminal Code. For instance, the bill stiffens the penalties for hooliganism and public disturbances if they are committed out of "ideological, political, racial, national or religious" motives, as well as out of "hatred or enmity toward some social group."

Belyak, the National Bolsheviks' lawyer, said a "social group" could be interpreted as anything from oligarchs to bureaucrats to law enforcement agencies. "This is an attempt to deprive people of any opportunities to protest, not just on racial or religious issues, but on social ones too -- to press people so they won't be able to protest," Belyak said. "If that's the case, then why do we need trade unions?"

Yemelyanov, the bill's co-sponsor, said the language was simply an attempt to clear up contradictions between the extremism law and the Criminal Code. He dismissed the criticism and said the "social groups" provision was justified. "We have a very bad characteristic as a people. It's considered normal to say that all rich people are bad, that all bureaucrats are bad," he said.

Yemelyanov cited the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as times when extremism damaged Russian society.