Russia's War on Political and Religious Extremism: An Appraisal of the Law "On Counteracting Extremist Activity"

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On May 27, 2002, Tatyana Sapunova became a Russian national hero for taking a stand against anti-Semitism, a move that literally blew up in her face. When she removed a sign reading "Death to Yids," a hidden bomb exploded, severely wounding her legs, hands, and face.1 Similar acts of terrorism soon followed.2

In recent years, social tensions in Russia have ripened into alarming trends of violence, ranging from street attacks by groups of "skinheads," to riots by soccer fans during Japan's televised defeat of Russia in the 2002 World Cup, to the recent capture of seven hundred hostages by Chechen rebels at a Moscow theater.3

In response to the escalating problem of ethnic and nationalist violence, the Russian Federation enacted the Federal Law On Counteracting Extremist Activity ("Extremism Law").4 The Extremism Law codifies a definition of "extremism," prohibits advocacy of extreme political positions, and imposes liability on organizations that do not disavow the "extremist" statements of their members. The law also allows government authorities to suspend, without court order, social and religious organizations and political parties; and creates incentives for local authorities to employ greater scrutiny in the registration and initiation of liquidation proceedings against organizations which the state deems undesirable.

This Comment provides a comparison of the Extremism Law and its amendments to existing legislation. Part II reviews several recent trends motivating the passage of anti-extremism legislation. Part III provides an article-by-article overview of the law and a discussion of its unique provisions. Part IV.A discusses the adequacy of existing laws and prevalent tendencies of inadequate and arbitrary enforcement. Part IV.B discusses the likely impact of the Extremism Law on the freedoms of expression, association, and conscience. It predicts a particularly harsh impact on nonprofit organizations, new religious movements, and religious organizations that have not traditionally maintained a presence in Russia. Part IV.C surveys the potential for perverse application of the law, drawing on actual scenarios that suggest the law may exacerbate the very tensions it seeks to quell. Part V provides a brief conclusion.

II. FACTORS MOTIVATING ANTI-EXTREMISM LEGISLATION

Fragmentation and integration of the Soviet Union into the world community has created new ethnic, political, and social tensions.5 The increasing prevalence of racism, nationalism, and concerns about dangerous religious "sects" and "cults" has contributed to a perceived need for additional legislation to combat these phenomena.

It is no coincidence that the Extremism Law was adopted shortly after the widespread appearance of booby-trapped anti-Semitic signs.6 The increasing ranks of nationalist, fascist, and other intolerant groups that attribute Russia's present economic and social ills to ethnic and national minorities became a primary motivation behind anti-extremism legislation.7 Draft anti-extremism legislation gained additional momentum following the June 2002 soccer riots in Moscow that ended in massive disorder, vandalism of cars and Japanese restaurants, and racial violence, including assaults on five Japanese students.8

Russia's Muslims have also become targets of persecution following increased military efforts in Chechnya, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, and the October 2002 Moscow theater siege.9 There is a growing tendency, even within the Muslim community, to marginalize minority Muslim groups as extremists and terrorists.10 Although Russia has traditionally maintained good relations with Islam, the increased exposure of the predominately Muslim, former Soviet states of Central Asia to Middle-Eastern fundamentalist influences has created new concerns in Russian national security policy.11 These increased tensions represent one motivation for the Extremism Law. …