Russian lawmakers are toying with the idea of levying extremism charges against bloggers who “incite xenophobic attitudes” when writing about the Crimea. Inna Svyatenko, a Moscow city council member, has proposed using Russia’s infamous anti-hate-speech criminal code, Article 282, to punish Internet users responsible for unpatriotic “provocations” about Russia’s newest territory. People convicted of violating Article 282 face fines up to 14 thousand dollars or as many as four years in prison.
“Intelligence agencies can’t gain complete control over bloggers,” the councilwoman acknowledged, saying this police shortcoming necessitates punishing “offenders” more visibly.
News of Svyatenko’s proposal first appeared in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta, which cited as examples of Crimea-related extremism LiveJournal posts by two anonymous bloggers, valdt and leisurebocker. While penalizing individuals writing under pseudonyms presents its own challenges, it’s also hard to understand why anyone singled out these bloggers as perpetrators of extremism, given that the content highlighted is far from xenophobic or violent. (Nezavisimaia Gazeta’s text does not make it clear if the examples are its own or Svyatenko’s.)
Valdt’s crime, it seems, was suggesting that acquiring Crimea would drain the Russian budget, enriching only a handful of oligarchs. Leisurebocker, meanwhile, declared (outrageously!) that the annexation’s one benefit could be that the subsequent international sanctions might arrest Russian capital flight. (As it happens, leisurebocker was actually quoting a blog post that appeared on Echo of Moscow’s website, authored by journalist Aleksandr Minkin.)
The idea of criminalizing such blogging comes on the same day that Russia’s Ministry of Finance revealed a plan to allocate almost 7 billion dollars to sustaining and developing Crimea. The lion’s share of that money would come from the private investments the government froze last year in the Russian pension system. (See here for a detailed explanation of that reform.)
If the two bloggers named above in the Nezavisimaia Gazeta article are guilty of inciting extremism against Crimea, it could mean open season on prosecuting Russia’s most prominent bloggers. Indeed, the country’s top political blogger, Alexey Navalny, was quick to draw attention today to the Finance Ministry’s plan to redistribute Russian pension wealth to its newest citizens, criticizing the move as the latest in a series of massive thefts orchestrated by state officials.
Do Svyatenko and the Moscow city council have the legal authority or the police capacity to charge bloggers writing about Crimea with violating the hate-speech criminal code? Even at the federal level, as Svyatenko herself admits, the Russian government’s ability to control the Internet is dubious. Given that deficiency, conspicuous prosecutions are the next-best tactic. With Russia now on a war footing, even if Svyatenko isn’t the person to spearhead the effort, expanded legal actions against bloggers writing politically sensitive texts will almost certainly rise.