Putin's Latest Soviet-Style Law-Making a Sign of Weakness
Every country has laws that constrain political freedom. Anti-capitalist protesters get moved on in London and New York. The Canadian province of Quebec, beset by student unrest, has passed a law imposing daily fines of as much as $35,000 on the organizers. Lawmakers try to stop online piracy and jihadist propaganda. Defamation, at least in theory, is a criminal offense in many democracies. American law says the activity of foreign agents must be registered and disclosed.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia is taking what looks like, superficially, a similar approach. Four new laws are passed or pending. One introduces big fines for participants and organizers of illegal protests. Another creates a blacklist, as yet unpublished, of "harmful" websites. A third recriminalizes defamation. A fourth makes nonprofit groups declare any funding from abroad and, if they accept any such funding, label themselves as "foreign agents." That fits with Putin's anti-Western rhetoric, portraying Russia as a besieged fortress and his opponents as the puppets of its foreign enemies.
Even if Russia had the rule of law and a vigorous free press, these laws would be cause for concern because they are loosely worded and have been rushed through with much official venom. What makes them worse is the way Russia's state agencies and public institutions work.
They chiefly serve their own interests, acting with impunity and taking political orders from the top. That stokes corruption. It also explains the feebleness of the investigations into the many abuses that have marked Putin's time in power, such as the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer. Russians have every reason to fear the new laws will be interpreted selectively and vindictively.
Putin is trying simultaneously to deter his opponents and to show his hardline supporters that he still has the will to crack down and can get the Duma to do his bidding. …