It has only been a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a new law into action, which raises the level of fines on unsanctioned demonstrations in the streets of Russia to staggering levels, in some cases as much as $10,000 for organizing a march.
This week, officials arrested Michael Jackson fans in St. Petersburg for staging an unsanctioned rally in remembrance of his passing in 2009. One individual was detained for several hours for organizing the event, although the rally itself was not inherently political in nature and had occurred for the last two years with no resistance or violence.
The streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg have been sites of tension and discomfort the whole year. Opposition rallies have been occurring since December, culminating in a strong showing in early May during the inauguration of Putin.
The internet has become the new frontier of control and surveillance by the Kremlin. Opposition leader Alexander Navalny has claimed that Kremlin officials hacked his Twitter and e-mail accounts this week. Navalny leveled the claims against government officials after his apartment was searched by the Kremlin a couple weeks ago in connection with a May 6 opposition rally. He says that investigators willingly leaked his passwords to hackers in order to search his accounts. Navalny insists that officials are attempting to build a criminal case against him using such material.
Navalny stated, “It’s obvious it was [hacked] from the computers and iPads seized during the search. The Moscow Times reports that a hacker who calls himself “Hell” broke into Navalny’s Twitter account to write insulting and profane words to Navalny’s supporters.
Hell has apparently attacked a number of opposition leaders’ social media accounts over the last year sparking speculation that he is connected with the Kremlin. Authorities have denied any connection to the password leaks and have not pursued any investigation into the case or the occurence of hacking.
Navalny’s fears come in the wake of possible new fines that will also make it more difficult to post extremist material on the web. The fines, consisting of a 3,000 ruble ($90) fine and 15 days in prison for posting external links to materials deemed extremist by the Prosecutor General’s Office, would mean increased Web surveillance on Russian citizens.
Currently there are 1,256 items deemed to be extremist by the Prosecutor General’s Office. Extremist items are generally reported by the Prosecutor General’s Office to the Justice Ministry. This ministry then includes the link or material on a federal watch list. Many bloggers and activists fear that these newly proposed fines will lead to more suppression of freedom of expression.
Mass media outlets are also under fire in these newly proposed fines. Outlets that post any material deemed extreme could be fined up to 300,000 rubles (nearly $10,000). Any outlet deemed to promote terrorism could receive a fine of 1 million rubles, according to the Moscow Times.
Both the newly imposed demonstration fines and the possible Web-based fines will work together to silence any oppositional voices in the Russian context. The vague language employed on both fronts also means that arrests and fines can be imposed more readily on a wider variety of cases, making the freedom to assemble and speak out that much more frightening and risky.
Photo Credit: Alexey Yushenkov