A package of “counterterrorism bills” was approved by the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament at its first reading today. The bills seek to amend the Russian Criminal Code by adding severe punishments for promoting terrorism and extremist activities. Earlier this week, the Kremlin had recommended to the Duma that it pass these bills. If—or rather when—the package is finally passed both by the Duma and the Senate, Russian citizens who have received a warning from the FSB for suspicion of committing terrorist or extremist crimes for the past five years will be prevented from leaving the country.
The scope of the odious Criminal Code articles have already been widely broadened under Vladimir Putin, to the point where almost any act—and especially any political action that opposes Kremlin policy—is branded as extremism. The official definition of extremism given in the Code is that these are crimes “committed out of political, ideological, religious, race or national hatred or antagonism or out of hatred or antagonism for a particular social class of people.”
The number of people convicted for extremism in Russia has more than tripled in the past five years, up from 137 to 414 (according to data from the Center for Political and Economical reforms). In July of 2014, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, an article was added to the Russian Criminal Code which made calls for separatism an extremist crime and a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Several citizens have already been convicted on the basis of this amendment.
At the end of last year, Darya Poludova, an activist, was sentenced to two years in prison for two counts of “extremism”. Poludova had merely reposted a photo on a social network that read “ethnic Ukrainians of Kuban (a Russian region) want to join Ukraine”. She also wrote her own post on the same social network in which she blamed Vladimir Putin for a slew of terror attacks that have occurred inside Russia on his watch, and wondered aloud why Russians could not throw out his regime as the Ukrainians had done next door.
Also last year, a municipal deputy in the Karelian town of Suojärvi, Vladimir Zavarkin, was charged with extremism after he headed up a protest movement demanding the local government step down. Zavarkin was quoted as saying, “If Russia does not hear us, we will probably hold a referendum. If Russia does not need Karelia, let us separate then. This would be the right thing to do!” The courts found Zavarkin guilty, and fined him the equivalent of $500.
And around a week ago, an engineer from Tver, Andrey Bubeev, was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in prison for reposting a picture that says that simply reads “Crimea is Ukraine” on a Russian social network.
Though some are already drawing comparisons to Soviet-era travel bans, these new restrictions should not be understood in these terms. The truth is that Putin has worked hard to get those opposed to his rule to leave, and he has by and large succeeded. 2013 represented a watershed year, with 183,000 Russians emigrating—a fifteen year high. The very next year, the number jumped up to 308,000. Those leaving are mostly the educated people of Russia’s growing middle- and upper-middle classes—the very core of the mass anti-Putin protests that sprung up between 2011 and 2012.
The new travel restrictions are being designed exclusively for those who choose stay in Russia but continue to oppose the Putinist regime and its policies. The message to these people is very clear: you don’t even need to be found guilty of extremism; a warning from the FSB is enough to restrict your freedom of movement. This could become a very effective means of persuading people to keep silent, even as the quality of their daily lives deteriorates. One should not judge them for that.