Academic journal article Law & Society Review

"When They Come for You": Legal Mobilization in New Authoritarian Russia

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

"When They Come for You": Legal Mobilization in New Authoritarian Russia

Article excerpt

As of 2012, the State Duma (Russia's parliament) has passed a torrent of repressive laws in response to mass protests in Moscow against the parliamentary election results and Vladimir Putin's return to the Presidency in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The Duma has sought to fine participation in unauthorized demonstrations, to amend extremism laws, and to curtail the activities of NGOs by cutting their ties with their foreign-primarily, North American-financial donors. This "law on foreign agents" forces Russian NGOs to register as "foreign agents" (inostrannye agenty) with the Ministry of Justice when they receive foreign funding and engage in political activities. NGOs that fail to comply can expect an unannounced inspection, often leading to long lawsuits and high fines between 300,000 and 500,000 Rubles.1

The Duma also amended treason and espionage laws in 2012, leading to a growing number of Russians under investigation by the Federal Security Service (the FSB, Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii) for high treason. This number spiked following the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Since then, Russians are more often approached by agents of the FSB, either for an official interrogation or a "chat" on the street (Litvinova 2016; Human Rights Watch 2017).

The foreign agent law and the amendments to treason legislation are part of Russia's "new authoritarian regime." New authoritarian rulers rely less than their "old" historical counterparts on mass violence to control opponents (Guriev and Treisman 2015a). Instead of incarcerating large numbers of political opponents, these regimes spread falsehoods, restrict access to the internet, expand surveillance, and randomly inspect NGOs and citizens (Guriev and Treisman 2015a; Soldatov and Borogan 2013). In Russia, vaguely worded repressive laws are passed quickly, but enforced erratically. Government opponents face constant surveillance, but are then arbitrarily and not consistently prosecuted, creating an environment of fear (Gel'man 2016). The result is that, for NGOs and Russian citizens, the question is not if, but when, the security services "come for you" (Team 29 2017).

As Russian authorities increasingly resort to the use of law as a tool to coerce, citizens' legal mobilization-"the process by which individuals make claims about their legal rights and pursue lawsuits to defend or develop those rights" (Epp 1998: 18)-as a tool of resistance has become difficult. Legal mobilization scholars commonly find that rights advocacy contributes to rights expansion by opening up access to justice for marginalized individuals (Cichowski 2007; Epp 1998) or that litigation builds a shared identity among movement activists even when there are court losses (McCann 1994; Sarat and Scheingold 2006; Vanhala 2012). Yet, these outcomes are absent in countries where authorities manipulate court cases and employ the law to vilify opponents as enemies of the state. We have a solid understanding of legal mobilization under the US legal system and in European democratic regimes where lawyers can reasonably expect a fair trial even in a conservative legal environment (Andersen 2009; Cichowski 2007; Conant 2006; McCann 1994; Sarat and Scheingold 2006; Scheingold 1974). Legal mobilization remains understudied in "new authoritarian" regimes where legal opportunities are few and far between and activist lawyers face unfair courts and unpredictable enforcement of laws.

This article draws from fieldwork and interviews with Russian lawyers and NGO representatives to examine why Russian human rights lawyers and NGOs nevertheless continue to use legal mobilization strategies both domestically and at the European Court of Human Rights, while coping with shrinking opportunities and resources. This study argues that random repression and vanishing financial resources do not stifle legal mobilization. Rather, Russian lawyers adapt their strategies to the repression they are facing. …

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