Andrei Piontkovsky seems an unlikely extremist.
But the leading member of Russia's liberal Yabloko party is facing serious legal woes under recently toughened "anti-extremism" laws over two books he wrote about President Vladimir Putin's years in power. In June, the FSB security service in the southern region of Krasnodar threatened to shut down the local branch of Yabloko if it did not stop distributing the books, which are sharply critical of the Kremlin, and the case is likely to go to court in coming months.
"It is perfectly clear that the anti-extremism laws are not aimed at fighting terrorism, but against the political opposition," says Mr. Piontkovsky, an urbane former chief of a Moscow political think tank.
Piontkovsky is one of several liberal intellectuals to have been targeted in recent months under the laws, which pro-Kremlin analysts say are necessary to fight a rising wave of racism, ultranationalism, and pro-terrorist sentiment.
First passed five years ago, the legislation was beefed up for the second time last month, when Russia's top prosecutor reported a sixfold increase of extremist crimes over last year. Advocates of tougher laws say such statistics justify the new legislation, but critics say the laws hinge upon vague definitions of "extremism" and "assistance" to extremists - both designed to intimidate the Kremlin's political opponents and journalists.
"Anything can be termed extremism [under the law]," says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks extremist activities. "It's possible the authorities want to have this Damocles sword hanging over everyone's head. [If you engage in public activity,] you will understand that you can be arrested, if not this time, then next time."
The new amendments to the law, passed last month by the State Duma, come just as Russia readies for what could be a stormy political campaign season. Duma elections will be held in December, followed by presidential elections in March, when Mr. Putin's two- term constitutional mandate will expire.
141 'extremist' youth groups
The legislation now outlines 13 aspects of extremism, including such actions as "slandering an official of the Russian Federation" and inciting hatred against any "social group." (Last year, an outspoken advocate of Chechen separatism, Boris Stomakhin, was sentenced to five years for inciting hatred against the Russian Army.) It provides punishment for "financing" and "organizing" extremist activity as well as rendering "public support" for extremism.
Advocates of tougher laws point to recent studies, such as one published in the daily Noviye Izvestia last month, which ennumerated 141 youth groups "of an extremist nature" in Russia, with a total of half a million members. "Extremist youth groups exist in all major cities, their numbers are growing, and they are becoming more organized and politicized," the paper said.
"The enemies of Russia are attempting to use extremists as a trigger for explosive ethnic conflicts, designed to destabilize society and cause the disintegration of the country," says Oleg Morozov, deputy speaker of the Duma, from the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. "We need to establish zero tolerance in our society for xenophobia, nationalism, and extremism in all its forms. …