A combination of suspicions of Russian government involvement in the theft of Democratic National Committee e-mails and new anti-terrorism measures recently signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin bode ill for Duma elections scheduled for September 18.
The DNC hack, while not confirmed as an attempt by the Kremlin to manipulate the results of the US presidential elections, testifies to the strength of Russian technological capabilities, according to panelists who participated in a discussion at the Atlantic Council on September 16.
The Yarovaya laws, anti-terrorism measures signed into law by Putin on July 7, curtail civil liberties. More specifically, they impose broad restrictions on Internet use and religious practice.
In 2011, the Russian people widely protested Putin. Since then, according to Hannah Toburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, the Kremlin has “become extremely concerned that they’re going to lose control of the political situation in the country.” It is this fear that has pushed the Kremlin toward adopting more repressive measures, she said.
Toburn joined Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, in a discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, moderated the event.
The Yarovaya laws “are just another in a long laundry list of events, decisions, and laws…that have slowly been eroding the civil rights, civil liberties of Russians,” said Toburn.
An early example of regulatory legislation, the Foreign Agent Law, passed in 2012, allowed the Russian government to designate nongovernmental organizations that accept funds from abroad as foreign agents. With 157 organizations on the list, this law demonstrates how closely the Kremlin monitors the activities of civil society groups.
On September 5, the Kremlin declared the Levada Center, an influential polling organization, a foreign agent after the organization reported that support for United Russia, the ruling party, had fallen to 50 percent. This designation effectively put a stop to the center’s political activities two weeks before parliamentary elections.
“[B]ecause of the way these laws have been implemented slowly over time, they’ve gotten used to the government being in their business. If you have lived through the Soviet era, it’s not that strange anyway,” said Toburn.
However, asserted Lanskoy, the Yarovaya laws are distinct in that they apply to all people, presenting broad strokes of legislation that allows for manipulation. Masking government control under the aegis of protecting the nation and public security, these laws stipulate that Internet providers must collect and store all data for six months, and must provide encryption codes to the government. The Kremlin does not need a warrant to access the information. This “system of total surveillance,” said Lanskoy, makes privacy and anonymity impossible. Akin to the model set in China, “the Russians are trying to build their own system of a controlled Internet,” according to Toburn.
Toburn asserted that the Russian people are accustomed to the use of an unrestricted Internet, and infringing upon this freedom could trigger protests. To avoid such a response, the Kremlin is not shutting down access, but regulating activity. According to Toburn, surveillance, rather than prevention, is their solution.
This need for increased control in the form of regulating online activity, Lanskoy asserted, originates from the Kremlin’s belief that protests can break out anywhere. In 2013, the Maidan protests in Ukraine were organized through Twitter and Facebook. The Internet, therefore, has become a threatening space to the Kremlin. According to Polyakova, “the online space in Russia is one of the last spaces for public open discussion. Now we’re seeing that that is also closing.”
These laws designed to target extremists have particularly affected religious communities throughout Russia. According to Cosman, if any religious community has been ruled by a court to be extremist, “any person active in this legally liquidated community is liable for legal prosecution for illegal activity.” By requiring religious communities to register with the state, the Kremlin has alienated most groups outside of the Russian Orthodox church, Cosman said.
The most disconcerting facet of the Yarovaya laws, according to Cosman, is that the definition of “terror” in this context is too broad, and all groups are brought under the thumb of government regulation and control.
“A closing space for proselytizing, a closing space for different religious groups has a tendency to trickle down to other of the post-Soviet countries,” Toburn said. She described the ways in which Russian activity sets the political tone in the region. “There’s certainly a trend in which countries who are interested in clamping down on their populations, whether it’s Belarus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, they tend to take their page from what the Russians do,” she said.
In consideration of this trend, Toburn asserted that a strong response from the international community is necessary. “If Russia can get away with it, if no one cares about what Russia does, then all of these other countries in turn tend to feel as though, ‘Well, we can get away with it too,’” she said.
Regardless of concern, according to Polyakova, the United States will not interfere with laws drafted in the name of fighting terror. The use of the word “anti-terror” problematizes a US response to the laws in the context of the ceasefire agreement brokered by the United States and Russia in Syria. “Because these laws are put out there under the name anti-terror…and this current administration does see Russia as an ally in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham…we’re perhaps not paying as much attention to it as we should,” said Toburn.
Cosman claimed that the enforcement of these laws will be costly for the technology companies required to execute them. Consequently, Internet providers have been given extensions to prepare for the regulations to take effect. Though the Yarovaya laws are “not in an enforceable form today,” according to Lanskoy, they can take on “an equally dangerous form” in the future.
Toburn also expressed concern, saying, “I have a hard time thinking that the country will ever completely go all the way back to the 1930s, but the fact that those symptoms are there is something that I think we should be extremely worried about.”
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.