With public order high on the Kremlin’s agenda, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has struck back.
Following the biggest protests ever against his 12-year rule, the State Duma lower house of parliament, where United Russia holds a majority, has passed a law which greatly increases fines against demonstrators.
Opponents say this is intended to stifle political dissent.
One said the law reflected the Kremlin’s “fear of the people.”
The last step to make it official is Putin’s signature.
It would dramatically raise maximum fines to the equivalent of nearly 15,000 euros for organisers and more than 7,000 euros for citizens participating in demonstrations at which public order is judged to have been disturbed.
In comparison, Russian fines for prostitution are capped at roughly 12,000 euros, and interfering at a nuclear plant some 5,000 euros.
In a country where salaries average around 600 euros per month, a person might think twice before expressing his convictions by being part of a public demonstration.
But the speaker of the Upper House says the law is not meant to repress people, rather it is to reinforce responsible behaviour.
Russia Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said: “The aim is not to punish or torment anyone. Any protest organiser should understand that if your approach is not responsible and if someone suffers as a result then the onus is on you: either you pay a public work penalty or money. I expect all public rally organisers will become more responsible through this. It will raise the level of responsibility and protect people who go to rallies believing they are always safe – as they should be.”
Moscow already requires a permit for gatherings and the authorities often use force to break up unauthorised protests.
Activists fear they will abuse the law to crack down.
Opposition lawmakers said Putin wanted the new measure ready before a planned mass protest in the capital next week.
Our Moscow correspondent spoke to Mikhail Fedotov about this. He is head of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Council on Human Rights. He has been in the post since his appointment by former president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010. He came into it after heading Russia’s Union of Journalists. In the early 1990s he was Minister for Press and Information.
Alexander Shashkov, euronews: Mr Fedotov, among many activists, you have advised Mr Putin to veto the protest control law which toughens penalties against unauthorised demonstrators. Why did you advise him not to approve this?
Mikhail Fedotov, Chairman of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights: Because the president has every reason to veto the law. The president is the guarantor of the constitution, of civil and human rights, and it would be right for him to redress the parliament’s error and reject the law, to send it back to parliament.
We do need to change our law concerning demonstrations. Recently, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for Democracy through Law, analysed our laws and made some quite long recommendations.
That is exactly the direction we should go in, although the amendments adopted today lead us in the opposite direction.
If we want to implement European standards in our laws, we must follow the Venice Commission’s advice. Moving otherwise means we move away from European standards.
euronews: The president’s press-secretary has said the law will be vetoed only if it doesn’t meet European standards. Does it?
Fedotov: It would be enough to say that the law confuses civic responsibility with criminal responsibility. The law, in fact, makes a civil offence a criminal offence. This is the most flagrant violation you can have of the principles of a country’s foundation in law and its judicial system.
If we compare an offence committed during a protest demonstration with the same act outside a demonstration, we see a difference of about 6,000 euros.
That’s to say, if you damage someone’s health or property during an organised protest, the fine can be 7,500 euros, but the very same act committed in other conditions carries a maximum fine of 1,000 euros. In this case, I think our parliament has gone too far.