What Lies Behind Russia’s New Laws

25.07.2012

What ultimately lies behind the Duma’s new laws is a mixture of nervousness about a political environment that is wholly unfamiliar. The most important of this series of laws is the one on the Internet because the opposition, less present in the streets, remains particularly active online. The Internet is challenging the authorities since the mass protests between December 2011 and March 2012.

The State Duma and Federation Council have adopted the law on libel and the law on "black lists" of websites, which provoked distinctly negative reaction both among the society and the main actors in information market. ValdaiClub.com interview with Julien Nocetti, Research Associate at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri), Paris. He recently directed a dossier on “States and the Internet” in the French journal Politique étrangère .

Does the introduction of these laws lead to a more civilized political and cultural discourse in Russia?

The main stake of these laws does not really deal with the emergence of a more civilized political discourse in Russia. What ultimately lies behind the Duma’s new laws is a mixture of nervousness about a political environment that is wholly unfamiliar, and a belief in the methods of Vladimir Putin’s previous stints as president.

The most important of this series of laws is the one on the Internet because the opposition, less present in the streets, remains particularly active online. The Internet is challenging the authorities since the mass protests between December 2011 and March 2012. Actually, the Internet has really become a stake for political stability for the government because there is less and less distance between online mobilizations and offline actions. Online debates prepare the ground for offline action, and offline actions feed online debates.

But there are still a few unknown features: what consequences will have the Internet on the non extreme and non political protesters? And how will Putin manage to “domesticate” the Internet – which has achieved a certain maturity at both national and local levels?

For sure, the Internet has now powerful news-making, agenda-setting, and fact-checking dimensions in Russia. We are only witnessing the beginning of the struggle between state and society to innovate as response to crisis and to mobilize change in power balance.

Is it possible that both laws will be only used as officials’ revenge on journalists they disliked and vice versa?

I think we have to look at the bigger picture: these laws are not meant to be regularly enforced as much as used to put those in opposition in a state of continuous theoretical legal jeopardy.

The law on the Internet may have the farthest-reaching implications. It calls for a new government body to administer a list of websites with banned content; the membership of this new committee, and how it will select the sites to be blocked, remains unclear. The opacity of the language leaves the law open to manipulation on political grounds. Moreover, the blocking of both individual websites and IP addresses may require service providers to acquire DPI technology, which filters Internet traffic into separate streams, making it easier to block particular services, such as Skype, or pages, such as certain Facebook groups.

How do you assess the recent tendency to “change opinion” on adopted laws (the law on libel was repealed about half a year ago and now it is reintroduced)?

This « trend » reveals two things. On the one side, whether due to haste or design, the new laws – then drafts – were marked by vagueness, leaving courts and officials all down the country’s bureaucratic chain great latitude in enforcing them. What was striking in this regard was that Wikipedia was joined in opposing the legislation on the Internet by the major Russian Web players (Yandex, LiveJournal, VKontakte, etc.), which proves how deep was the misunderstanding.

On the other side, today’s Russians are more informed than they have ever been in the country’s history. Thanks to digital technologies they can demand some kind of accountability to their federal or local authorities. Law-making is a part of this process (Dmitri Medvedev a few years ago used this to promote his law on police reform), and the new generations just do not want to be let ashore.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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