Russia

Konstantin Kotov and the sorry state of freedom of expression in today’s Russia

OPINION

On the 16th December, Russian activist Konstantin Kotov was released from a penal colony situated 100 kilometres from Moscow. He had served eighteen months after being convicted for violating the country’s numerous rules that regulate protesting and mass actions. Kotov was first arrested during the anti-Kremlin protests that rocked Moscow in the summer of 2019. At his trial in September 2019, he was prosecuted under Russia’s controversial ‘Dadinskaya Law’, or Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code.

This law criminalises the ‘violation of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picket if this act is committed repeatedly’. Introduced in 2014, the ‘Dadinskaya law’ has been challenged by human rights groups as being incompatible with the right to protest, as guaranteed by Russia’s Constitution. Amnesty International, for example, declared Kotov a prisoner of conscience, demanding his immediate acquittal and release. In fact, Russia’s Constitutional Court even ordered a review of Kotov’s case in January 2020 when Kotov’s legal team stressed his constitutional right to protest. When the review actually came a few months later, however, Moscow City Court decided to uphold Kotov’s conviction, although the sentence was reduced from four years to eighteen months.

The unofficial name of this notorious article in the Criminal Code, the ‘Dadinskaya Law’, comes from the Russian activist Ildar Dadin, the first person ever prosecuted under its name (Kotov was the second). Dadin participated in rallies supporting opposition politician Alexei Navalny and marches in support of the LGBT community, before his arrest in December 2015. He was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment by the Basmanny Court in Moscow, a court notorious for high-profile trials against individuals who have fallen out with the state, such as the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2004.

A protester holds a banner for the release of Konstantin Kotov, activist arrested in demonstrations during the local elections campaign in Moscow, Russia, on 24th September 2019. Pickets protest near the entrance of the President Administration building. (Photo by Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In fact, the expression ‘басманное правосудие’ (Basmanny justice), coming from the name of this court, now describes the low degree of judicial independence that characterises the Russian judicial system, which is increasingly being used as an instrument of the state’s political repression. The experiences of Ildar Dadin and Konstantin Kotov, arrested and imprisoned solely for using their right to protest, confirm this sobering portrayal of the current state of justice and freedom of expression in modern Russia.

The Russian Constitution guarantees its citizens a range of freedoms, including of conscience, of ideas, and of speech. Time and time again, however, it has been demonstrated that this is not a reality on the ground. Kotov and Dadin are by no means the only people to have ever been detained for protesting. Russia has seen its fair share of protests in Putin’s time, especially in recent years. Anti-Kremlin protests took place across the country in 2017 and 2018, while the large-scale Moscow protests in 2019 were met with solidarity marches in other major Russian cities.

Russia’s Far East has been the site of major protests for much of this year, following the arrest of popular governor Sergei Furgal for trumped-up charges of involvement in multiple accounts of murder. Police brutality and arrests have been a major feature in all of these movements, especially in the Moscow protests of 2019. These increased numbers of protestors appear to suggest an increasingly politicised Russian population, is also leading the Kremlin to seek other measures to limit freedom of expression.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – AUGUST 17, 2019: Journalist Viktoria Ivleva stages a lone protest against activist Konstantin Kotov’s August 14 arrest, near a monument to Nadezhda Krupskaya in Sretensky Boulevard. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS (Photo by Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images)

Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law is another clear indicator of the state’s attempts to expand its existing monopoly on public expression. The state targeting of so-called ‘foreign agents’ began in 2012 when a new law was introduced, initially focused solely on NGOs which received foreign funding. Since then, such ‘foreign agent’ organisations faced reductions in funding and state-backed intimidation of staff.

The law has since then been expanded to target individuals, such as journalists and bloggers, who receive funding from outside Russia. In just November 2020, a bill was introduced before the Russian Parliament, which seeks to further expand the current definition to include any politically active individual with financial links to other countries. The proposed expansion of the ‘foreign agent’ law would also give the authorities the power to ban individuals marked as ‘foreign agents’ from running for office, while also enabling the authorities to dissolve any such organisations.

Amnesty International has described the attempts to expand the scope of the repressive law as a ‘new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity’. Indeed, the term ‘foreign agent’ is a loaded one in Russia, especially considering the country’s experience with Soviet-era espionage and repression at the height of the Cold War. The portrayal of organisations that receive funding from other countries as enemies of the Russian nation is a chilling reflection of the state’s attempts to monopolise public opinion and eliminate oppositional influences.

The expansion of the ‘foreign agent’ law will grant the state greater powers to target organisations that it considers a threat to its legitimacy, further undermining the constitutional right that Russian citizens hold to freedom of expression. A sign of what is yet to come is clear from the story of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the non-profit organisation founded by Alexei Navalny. The organisation made its name through its investigations, which sought to expose corruption among Russian government individuals, requesting private donations from Russian citizens to help fund this endeavour. Some of the more notorious subjects of the FBK’s investigations have included former Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, Minister of Finance, Anton Siluanov, and Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu. All three have been exposed as owning properties and assets which they have failed to declare.

Considering how senior some of the FBK’s targets are, it is unsurprising that it was declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the Ministry of Justice in October 2019. Navalny’s FBK faced repeated raids by security services, and now finds itself in liquidation after a number of lawsuits for supposed defamation. This includes the lawsuit launched by Yevgenii Prigozhin, a businessman who has been nicknamed ‘Vladimir Putin’s chef’, after his company Concord had previously catered for the Kremlin. The fact that the courts ruled against Navalny, ordering the FBK to pay Prigozhin 88 million rubles (US$1.2 million), underscores the contempt held by organs of the Russian state for freedom of expression that challenges the incumbent regime.

Alexei Navalny (Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The severe limits on freedom of expression in the real world are being mirrored by increased attempts at censorship online. This was certainly something that impressed itself on me during my stay in St. Petersburg. My colleagues and I were often warned to be careful when using VKontakte (VK), the popular social media service which is the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Of course, concerns over the privacy of our data when using social networking sites are by no means a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Nonetheless, with VK, I was cautioned on numerous occasions that state monitoring of user activity would be a given.

This has largely been the case since control of the network was seized from the site’s founder, Pavel Durov. When anti-Russian Euromaidan protests rocked Ukraine in 2014, the FSB (successor to the KGB), demanded that VK hand over data of users involved in online groups that supported the protests. Durov tried to resist pressure from the state to clamp down on dissenting posts on VK, but found himself ousted from the company that year, leaving him with little choice but to flee Russia. In a VK post from April 2014, Durov wrote that the ownership of VK had transferred to Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov. Unsurprisingly, both men are close allies of the Kremlin.

The issue of access to user data has caused problems for other network and its services, with serious implications for their operations within Russia. Another of Durov’s creations, the messaging app Telegram, faced a similar run-in over this issue, causing it to be banned by a Moscow court in April 2018. Difficulties with seeing this ban through led to a government change of tack earlier this year, although official sources maintain that this was a result of Durov’s newfound ‘willingness’ to cooperate with the state.

Linkedin found itself blocked on the Russian web two years prior to Telegram’s blocking for similar reasons, although it is yet to receive a reprieve in the way that Telegram did. Russia’s list of blacklisted internet content has been growing rapidly over the last decade to include oppositional content that the state labels as ‘extremism’. Control over this blacklist lies with the state, rather than with independent NGOs. In 2015, the state fined Google 500,000 rubles (US$6600) for failing to remove search entries that featured blacklisted content. In addition to targeting websites and networks, Russia has clamped down on VPNs and anonymisers. New legislation in 2017 banning these tools represents yet another stage in the state’s attempts to seize control of what its citizens can access online.

Just a few days ago, Russia’s parliament moved again to combat online dissent. Parliament, which is heavily dominated by Putin’s United Russia party, passed a law making it illegal to reveal data concerning members of the state’s security services. This came after Navalny released a stunning video recording of a phone call with an FSB agent, appearing to confirm that the FSB was behind his poisoning earlier this year. During the recording, in which Navalny poses as a senior official, the agent states that FSB operatives applied the nerve agent novichok to his underpants.

Once again, this new law shows an attempt by the state to assume total control over information its citizens can receive online. While the state demands access to the personal data of its citizens, it is vehemently opposed to its citizens having access to data of state personnel. This marks the latest step in a series of moves geared towards the ultimate isolation of the Russian internet from the broader world wide web, allowing Russia to suppress any expression of opposition without having to deal with non-compliant foreign networks and websites.

The creation of an unplugged internet is precisely what the state is aiming for. Towards the end of last year, a new law meant that all computers, smartphones, and smart TVs sold in Russia must have certain apps made by Russian developers pre-downloaded. It has been reported that the Kremlin is also exploring the possibility of creating its own Wikipedia alternative. Russia’s move towards an unplugged internet as an instrument of control, akin to Xi Jinping’s Great Firewall of China, offers a sombre prognosis for freedom of speech in modern-day Russia. Threatened with the loss of Russian hegemony in the post-Soviet sphere, specifically in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and the Caucasus, the Kremlin is making bold, and deeply concerning efforts to reassert control at home by targeting Russians’ constitutional right to freedom of expression.

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