This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.
Last week, on June 5, 2012, the Liublinksii Court in Moscow ruled [ru] that blogger and activist Aleksei Navalny was guilty of slandering United Russia (UR) political party member Vladimir Svirid. He was fined nearly $1,000 (30,000 rubles) for repeating an anti-UR meme in a November 2011 interview [ru] in Russian Esquire magazine, calling the country's ruling political party “a party of crooks and thieves” (or, more literally, “cardsharps and thieves”).
Vladimir Burmatov, another UR member, announced [ru] on June 10 that he will soon unveil a website designed to assist other party members in launching their own anti-defamation legal suits against Navalny. As United Russia boasts nearly two million members, Burmatov's campaign could theoretically result in two million individual cases mirroring Svirid's — amounting to a ridiculous-seeming two billion dollars in fines for Navalny.
Burmatov says he has hired programmers in Yaroslavl to design the website, which will coordinate the assembling of official documents for the lawsuits. Addressing questions about what United Russia representatives should do with their ‘billions,’ Burmatov encouraged colleagues to donate to charities and invest in local beautification projects. (This environmental note was perhaps a jab at Khimki forest's defender, Evgenia Chirikova, or a nod to sometimes-regime-collaborator Ilya Varlamov's “Moscow for People” better-urban-living activism.)
Explaining himself to Yuri Pronko on Finam.fm radio, Burmatov said [ru] that Twitter was the catalyst for his anti-slander project:
[…] Мне кажется, будет нарастать, по крайней мере, судя по реакции в моем «Twitter». Я вчера написал, и у меня довольно большое количество подписчиков как среди оппозиционеров (они там пишут разные вещи), так и, естественно, моих коллег по партии, и я получил очень большое количество ответов, знаете, примерного такого вида: «Наконец-то, почему этого раньше не делали?» Я, кстати, не знаю, почему этого раньше не делали. Видимо, нужен был прецедент.
Burmatov's comments, and the premise of his entire online campaign to rally two million United Russia members to sue Navalny, rest heavily on the expectation that other courts will rule just as Moscow's Liublinksii Court did last week. Russia, however, is a civil law country [en] — meaning that, unlike common law legal systems like those in the United States and Great Britain, decisions rendered by one court are not binding on other courts.
Indeed, Russian legal unpredictability was on prominent display in the Liublinksii Court's very June 5 verdict: as it happens, the same court rejected [ru] an identical suit by the same plaintiff against the same defendant just last year!
The Russian legal tempest
In October 2011, the Liublinksii Court ruled that Navalny's use of the phrase “a party of crooks and thieves” did not constitute slander against Vladimir Svirid. Navalny coined the phrase [ru] on February 21, 2011, when he was a guest on Yuri Pronko's radio show. In October, the court determined that the meme “PZhiV,” as it is often abbreviated in Russian online, was too general to be considered a personal attack on specific United Russia members. Last week, the court reached exactly the opposite conclusion.
Burmatov had this to say [ru] about the lack of the precedent norm in Russian law:
Несмотря на то что в России не прецедентное право, тем не менее прецедент создан и я хочу помочь не одному или двум коллегам по партии, а всем желающим однопартийцам. Именно поэтому я решил, что нужна интернет-площадка, на которой в открытом доступе будет лежать весь пакет необходимых документов. Останется распечатать, вписать свое имя и оплатить пошлину.
Responding to criticisms that his campaign threatens free speech in Russia, Burmatov argues [ru] confidently:
[…] Если еще будет выиграно несколько таких исков, может быть, наши коллеги по оппозиции иногда начнут задумываться, прежде чем открывать рот и что-то говорить. А если будут что-то говорить, то привыкнут отвечать за свои слова, потому что сказать у нас можно действительно все, что угодно, у нас свободная страна. Но свобода всегда предполагает ответственность, а вот к ответственности у нас, к сожалению, далеко не все привыкли.
RuNet bloggers have mostly and unsurprisingly condemned the attack on Navalny, whose rise to prominence in the opposition has been fueled by legions of faithful “Internet hamsters” and his fearless commitment to revealing through his blog corruption among Russia's most powerful political actors.
Ivan Kurilla, a historian based in Volgograd, responded that “PZhiV” is becoming the least of United Russia's worries, arguing [ru] that the authorities’ increasingly oppressive treatment of protesters is transforming the party of power's reputation from one of thieves into one of killers. Kurilla attaches to this sentiment a line from Joseph Brodsky poem, “Letters to a Roman Friend”:
“Ворюга мне милей, чем кровопийца”
LiveJournal user tsuhov points out [ru] that Sergei Tsepoviaz, a former United Russia member and a prominent figure in the Kushchevskaia bandit group uncovered [en] in 2010, is also potentially eligible to utilize Burmatov's site in order to sue Navalny. (Presumably, one would have less trouble defending himself against an anti-defamation suit brought by a murder suspect.)
Indeed, the possible complications arising from a public spectacle, where Navalny would be allowed the courtroom floor to lay bare his reasons for “defaming” any particular United Russia member, perhaps explain why Burmatov himself has yet to file a suit against Navalny. Serving merely as the facilitator of lesser known (and presumably less corrupt) party members, Burmatov could consciously be avoiding a Tsepoviaz-scenario.
Ilya Linev, a blogger from Kirov, wrote [ru] in the “Honest Politics” LJ forum:
Конечно, глупо считать, что с Навального смогут взыскать 60 миллиардов рублей, но жизнь ему это осложнить вполне таки может. Запасаемся попкорном и делаем ставки? Таким макаром единоросы надеются научить Навального фильтровать базар и направить его энергию в более законопослушное русло, ну и звёздности ему это подубавит. Вполне моджет [sic] получиться современная история про Икара и солнце.
Navalny's own reaction to Svirid's court victory and Burmatov's campaign was characteristically defiant. He wrote [ru] on his blog:
Призываю всех поддержать меня и всех, кто так считает очень простым действием, напишите, где можете:
ЕДИНАЯ РОССИЯ – ПАРТИЯ ЖУЛИКОВ И ВОРОВ
В жж, Вконтакте, твиттере, фейсбуке, стене или заборе.
А единороссам мы эти 30 тысяч рублей в глотку забьём
Navalny also teased [ru] Burmatov about trying to raise money off the lawsuits project, linking such rent-seeking behavior to United Russia's (and President Putin's) recent passage of far higher fines for administrative violations committed during mass demonstrations (in some cases raising penalties above the fees associated with certain criminal violations).
Earlier today, on June 11, Navalny's own apartment, along with his offices and the home of his in-laws, was raided [ru] by federal investigators, who spent most of the day searching for unspecified proof of crimes linked [ru] to protester-police violence during the last major opposition rally, on May 6. Police officers also searched the homes of several other prominent protest-organizers, including Ksenia Sobchak, Ilya Yashin, Sergei Udaltsov, and at least six others.
What tomorrow will bring
Considered together, these actions amount to strong evidence that the state has consciously and concertedly set out to penalize and intimidate the individuals most commonly identified with Russia's “winter of discontent,” which has dramatically altered the social context of the country in comparison with a year ago, despite Putin's reelection and the Kremlin's continued dominance of formal “systemic” politics.
As always, conspiracy theories abound — particularly online, where without hesitation anyone can disseminate a suspicion instantly. Alarmists on Twitter promulgated and briefly popularized the hashtag “привет37год” (Hello 37!), suggesting that today's raids parallel Stalin's Great Purge [en].
Natalia Antonova, deputy editor of The Moscow News, proposed [en] that “someone is trying HARD to stop the June 12 rally.” One of United Russia's own, Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein (a notorious opponent of oppositionists, including Navalny), tweeted [ru] his disbelief about the Investigative Committee's actions:
Не буду раскрывать тайну. Но то, что ждет Бастрыкина, не имеет аналогов. Я знал, что он не в адеквате. Но то, что настолько – не знал.
Khinshtein, of course, also has a longstanding rivalry [en] with Bastrykin, so his threat is hardly an anomaly. Many other questions, however, remain unanswered, for now. June 12, and with it “Russia Day” and the next “Million Man March,” are just hours away. The consequences (and perhaps the reasons) for today's raids and the recent surge in anti-Navalny state pressure should soon be clearer.
This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.