Getting tough. Why did 2018 break record for the number of “prohibitive” laws? 

Getting tough. Why did 2018 break record for the number of “prohibitive” laws?
In Russia, 2018 was held under the slogan "More bans!" Photo: The CrimeRussia

The past year broke several records at once. The level of popularity of the president and the party in power dropped to a minimum. Social tensions and protest activity of the population increased to a maximum. Over the past year, a record number of prohibitive laws and initiatives have been passed. But it appears the authorities themselves do not really believe in the effectiveness of their own prohibitions.

Immediately after Vladimir Putin’s election victory, the level of public confidence in the Russian president began to fall almost as rapidly as the ruble exchange rate. From record numbers, he drifted towards a minimum. According to a survey by Levada Center sociologists, the president’s activity was not approved by 49% of Russians in November. In December, sociologists found out that 55% of respondents were convinced that Vladimir Putin was responsible for the problems in the country and the rising cost of living. Another 37% of respondents blamed the government for all troubles, and 21% thought Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was to blame. 13% of survey participants attributed responsibility to the governors and local authorities.

Throughout the year, the party in power was gradually losing support. In the first 10 months, the United Russia lost 9% of its supporters. And in November, only 9% of respondents fully approved the activities of United Russia. According to Levada Center, 44% of respondents were completely or partially dissatisfied with the policies of the ruling party.  

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Similar results were recorded by other independent analytical services. For example, according to the Russian fund Obshchestvennoe Mnenie (‘Public opinion’), the rating of United Russia fell to a minimum since 2007, and the rating of the Russian president fell to 45%. Even the loyal Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM) admitted that the rating of the party in power decreased to the lowest since 2011. And after the government announced the pension reform and increased VAT, WCIOM sociologists recorded a drop in the approval level of the president’s activities from 80.3% to 62.5%, and that of the government from 45.4% to 31.1%.

Russians are less satisfied with their way of living. Thus, participants in the WCIOM survey acknowledged that in the past year, they began to experience negative emotions much more often. The growth of tiredness was estimated from 8% to 19%, that of sadness from 4% to 10%, and that of disappointment from 3% to 10%. As for the year’s estimates for the country as a whole, only 4% of respondents called the last year very good for Russia, and 29% called it a good year.

Amid the current situation in the country, even the Soviet times are beginning to look more and more attractive. By the end of the year, the number of Russians yearning for the USSR increased to a maximum over the decade. Levada Center found out that two three inhabitants of the country regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to a survey of sociologists, among the reasons why the Russians miss the USSR were the destruction of the unified economic system (52%), the loss of a sense of belonging to a great power (36%), and the growth of mutual distrust and bitterness (31%).

During the annual August survey, Levada Center sociologists recorded that the level of tension in society had increased by one third compared with the level of last year. Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov noted that the last time such indicators were observed was 20 years ago, on the eve of the 1998 default. “This means that the level of tension in the country has sharply increased. Moreover, this is not a concern with a specific problem, but rather an increase in general anxiety and discontent,” Gudkov concluded

Growing discontent is evident even without polls.

By September, the Center for Economic and Political Reforms recorded a sharp increase in protest activity of the population. For example, in the third quarter, the number of protests more than tripled from the beginning of the year and increased by 2.8 times compared to the same period last year. In total, 2,526 protest actions took place last year. The main trigger was the pension reform – almost half of the protests were associated with it. Mass rallies against the retirement age increase were held in all regions of the country.  

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However, it turned out that people were ready to take to the streets not only because of retirement age. For example, according to the Bely Shchetchik (‘White Counter’) volunteers, over 12.5 thousand people came to the rally in support of the Telegram messenger on Sakharov Avenue in Moscow in April – about the same as to the most massive action against pension reform on July 28.

The protests of Alexey Navalny’s supporters began to gather an unprecedented number of participants. September 9 rally was held in 82 cities of Russia and became one of the most popular in the year. It became the second in the number of detentions: according to the estimates of OVD-Info, over a thousand people were detained (more than 500 in St. Petersburg alone). 

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There were even more detentions during Navalny’s action on May 5, which was held on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration under the slogan “He’s not our Tsar.” Several thousand people took to the streets in Moscow. Cossacks armed with whips dispersed the protesters; they were assisted by police – this day was a record in the number of detentions – more than 1600 people across the country were detained.  

In December, Levada Center found out that every third inhabitant of Russia was ready to take part in protest actions.  

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The authorities had to seriously consider how to ‘hold the lid on a boiling pot.’ It was decided to go according to the traditional scenario – that is, further tighten screws. Over the year, dozens of new laws appeared in the country, which should, if not pacify the disgruntled, then at least intimidate and silence them.

Now every Russian should know: whatever they say or write can become the property of the special services at any moment. From the beginning of the year, administrators of messaging services are obliged to limit the transfer of prohibited information, transfer data about correspondence and users to law enforcement authorities upon request, and provide government agencies with channels for communication with users. All organizers of information dissemination, including popular messengers and social networks, were forbidden to report on work with the special services. Now, if the FSB wants to read your messages, the administration of the social network will not tell you anything about it.

It is not difficult to establish the author of the seditious message: on the first day of the new year Russians lost the opportunity to use messengers anonymously. Now they are required to pre-identify each user by phone number under threat of fine or blockage. This allows quickly getting all the passport details of the subscriber, since in 2017 the State Duma banned cellular operators from selling SIM cards without presenting a passport. On June 1 this year, amendments to the Law “On Communications” came into force, obliging operators to block previously sold ‘gray’ SIM cards. 

Another novelty is intended not only to establish the subscriber of the cellular network, but also bring them to justice for their words. Starting on July 1, operators are obliged to keep records of conversations and correspondence of customers up to six months as part of the previously adopted package of antiterrorist amendments proposed by State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor Ozerov.

Irina Yarovaya

Irina Yarovaya 

A whole package of laws should take control of social networks recognized as a hotbed of discontent and sedition. In the spring, parliament reviewed and the president signed in record time the draft law on deletion of information that “defames the honor, dignity, or business reputation of a citizen or business reputation of a legal entity.” From now on, it is illegal to publish “discrediting information” about officials and deputies in social networks. The lightest punishment for criticism is the blocking of your page. If the person or organization of which you spoke negatively does not like the record in the social network, they can always go to court. The bailiffs will force you to delete the entry or block your page on the social network or the entire site. The bailiff's decision to restrict access to defamatory information is now considered the basis for including the resource in the Roskomnadzor registry, and the supervisory authority will send notifications to the hosting provider and ensure that the site is blocked.  

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To prevent a social network user from hiding his identity under a moniker, it is forbidden to use nicknames. It is also forbidden to register online anonymously, just like having several pages at once. December 12, a draft law was introduced to the Duma, which provides for up to 15-day arrest for insulting authorities online. Senators Lyudmila Bokova and Andrey Klishas proposed amendments to Art. 20.1 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation (Disorderly Conduct), adding part 3 to it. According to parliamentarians, it is worth writing a fine of up to 5 thousand rubles ($74) or placing the author in a special detention center for up to 15 days for posting materials that will indecently express “obvious disrespect for society, the state, official state symbols of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and the bodies exercising state power in the Russian Federation.”  

Andrey Klishas

Andrey Klishas

At the same time, the senators decided to prohibit the publication of unreliable information, which creates a threat to the lives of citizens or a massive violation of order, in the media and the Internet. According to the authors of the novel, in order to combat such information, it is necessary to use the same mechanisms as to combat the dissemination of information about extremism and calls for participation in illegal mass events.

If the new law is adopted, and all Klishas's initiatives are considered “passable,” then any person who posted an “offensive” message on a forum or social network can be arrested. The text of the draft law and the explanatory note to it do not explain what such “apparent disrespect” is and in what way it can manifest itself.  

According to the co-author of the bill Lyudmila Bokova, the Prosecutor General’s Office will determine what is considered to be “disrespect.”

Lawmakers have also worked hard to complicate the search on the Internet for information that has not been approved by the authorities. In the fall of 2017, new amendments to the Law “On Information” came into force. They banned search engines from posting links to blocked resources, but did not impose any penalty on this. State Duma deputies came up with it only by June of this year, and in July the president signed the amendments. Now, search engines will be penalized for refusing to delete links to blocked resources, and owners of VPN services and other resources to circumvent locks under threat of a fine will be obliged to provide information about themselves to Roskomnadzor. Bypassing blocking using anonymizers and VPN is officially prohibited since last year. 

The authorities are forced to observe how millions of people still use the programs, because they do not have an effective way to combat this “evil.”

Two new laws were directed against the organizers of the protests. On the last day of October, the President of Russia signed the law on “abuse of the right to rallies”. Now, if a person has submitted a notice of a procession, rally or protest, but is not going to hold it, he will pay a fine. Those, who at least a day in advance did not warn the authorities about the cancellation of the event, will have to pay, too. Individuals will have to part with 5-20 thousand rubles ($75-300), officials – with 10-30 thousand rubles ($150-450), and legal entities – with 20-100 thousand rubles ($300-1500). From now on, one can prevent the organizers from holding a protest rally – and then bring them to justice for it.

And at the last session, just before the New Year, the State Duma adopted a bill that at first glance looks like concern for children. Adopted in the third reading, the law prohibits the involvement of minors in meetings. For protest activity of teenagers, the organizer of the rally can go under arrest for up to 30 days or pay a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($7,500). What does all this mean in practice? It is enough to send the child to any action of Navalny, for example, and the appearance of a minor provocateur will give legal grounds for the detention of the organizers.

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In order to discourage young citizens from wanting to come to rallies themselves, the authorities took a whole series of measures designed to protect the younger generation from sedition. So, from January 1 of this year, Russians, who have not yet turned 14, have no right to register on social networks at all. Moreover, for attempting to register under a fictitious surname and someone else's avatar, fines can be imposed on both site owners and parents of minors. And users of social networks under the age of 18 are prohibited from joining communities that contain prohibited information. If the ban is violated, parents will pay a fine.

Just before the New Year, the president of Russia signed a law banning Columbine communities on the Internet. The initiator of the novel was Irina Yarovaya, who this time decided to fight “death groups.” The law provides for the immediate blocking of Internet communities that push children to suicide and illegal actions that threaten the life and health of others. Pages with prohibited materials will be blocked, not deleted, because, according to the authors of the draft law, this will allow security officials to gather the necessary evidence for investigation. 

If desired, “illegal community” can be considered any forum where teenagers gather, and virtually any comment can qualify as a “push.” CrimeRussia has already written about how, under the pretext of protecting children from harmful information, concerts of popular performers such as Husky, Allj, Matrang, Monetochka, Jah Khalib, groups IC3PEAK and Friendzona are prohibited. A deputy of the Leningrad Region, Vladimir Petrov, suggested that rap and rap battles should be outlawed at all – at least “until the situation is normalized among the youth”. Many songs "openly advocate suicide, drug addiction, Satanism, extremism, and even contain calls for treason," said Petrov. Deputy Vitaly Milonov proposed to ban even youth twerk dancing. And all this is happening under the specious pretext of protecting children. It also becomes the basis for other absurd initiatives. So, after shooting at the Kerch college, State Duma deputy Sergei Mironov proposed to ban the media altogether from reporting acts of terrorism so as not to provoke imitators. And the rest of the legislators again seriously discussed the ban on promoting video games and selling weapons to citizens under 25 years of age. The ban on Columbibes will become a new tool for such “fighters for children's morality”, and will help keep them from “unlawful acts”, including “treason against the Motherland”.  

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The authorities understand that the situation cannot be fixed only by tightening the screws, so they are trying to take measures to reduce the degree of discontent in society. So, at the last session, the deputies of both chambers of the State Duma voted for the widespread seizure of street boards with exchange rates. On the Internet, they joke that this is how “they banned the last objective federal media” in the country. However, the wittiest ones immediately replaced the boards with the rates of dollars and euros with air temperature information in the USA and Europe.

Indeed, it is better to ban the boards so that they do not remind ordinary citizens once again that buying currency has become an unacceptable luxury for them. Why emphasize that the holiday abroad is not affordable for the majority of Russians? It is better to prepare them in advance for the fact that you will have to rest not in Turkey and Thailand, but in their own summer cottage. The first step has already been taken. Since July 1, all civil servants, recipients of state awards and scholarships can no longer receive salaries and other transfers to the cards of the international payment systems VISA or MASTERCARD. Now all officials and students are required to issue a card of the domestic payment system Mir (World). And the fact that state employees cannot pay with it for purchases during a holiday abroad – well, soon they will not need such an option.  

The next step is predictable – a ban on the circulation of the dollar and the euro in a country where they have become too expensive for citizens. A de-dollarization plan for the economy is already being developed and classified. Probably also from the best intentions. But some of the most zealous parliamentarians give away the direction of the thoughts of the authorities. Thus, State Duma deputy from the LDPR Mikhail Degtyarev proposed banning the circulation and storage of US dollars in Russia. According to the parliamentary initiative, the citizens of the Russian Federation are given exactly two years to sell the dollars they hold in legal form. Then it is proposed to confiscate the currency in favor of the federal budget. A member of the State Duma Committee on Budget and Taxes, Yevgeny Fedorov, developed a bill prohibiting Russian companies from conducting financial transactions in foreign currency in the territory of the Russian Federation, as well as being credited in dollars and euros. "The free circulation in the territory of Russia of the currency of the aggressor countries – US dollars and euros – prevents the popularization of the ruble and prevents it from becoming a full-fledged global reserve currency," the representative said.  

Yevgeny Fedorov

Yevgeny Fedorov

But just as a ban on the dollar cannot be used to raise the exchange rate of the ruble, so it will not be possible to lower the degree of discontent and tensions in society with bans on everything. The authorities also understand this, so the fixed assets are spent not only on the army, which must confront the “aggressor countries”, but also on the armed formations, which will have to fight the most dangerous enemy – the internal one. According to the draft budget for 2019 approved by the State Duma, the military, the National Guard, the MIA and other law enforcement agencies will get one-third of the total federal budget. So, only on the MIA in the next year will get more money than health care and education combined. In 2019, 2,382 trillion of budget rubles ($35.3 bln) will go to people with weapons, in 2020 2.456 trillion rubles ($36.4 bln), and in 2021 another 2.523 trillion rubles ($37.4 bln). Anatoly Popov, director of the budget policy department in the sphere of state military and law enforcement services and the state defense order of the Ministry of Finance, said that these were only open spending, there are also classified ones. “The total amount of additional budget allocations for defense and security amounts to 1 trillion 160 billion rubles ($17.2 bln) for three years – this is an unprecedented decision, such decisions have not been made before, at least for a long time,” he added.  

Perhaps it is this kind of prioritization that most of all speaks about how the authorities assess the level of tension in the country, and at the same time the effectiveness of the laws that they adopt to suppress it.

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