Russian NGOs Learn to Invest in Paper Shredders

At 3AM, on Saturday, June 22, 2013, Russian riot police and private security raided the offices of one of the country’s oldest human rights organizations, the “For Human Rights” group [ru]. Those inside, including the group’s leader, Lev Ponomarev, and the chairman of the liberal opposition party “Yabloko,” Sergei Mitrokhin, were forcibly evicted from the premises. Both Ponomarev and Mitrokhin claimed to have received cuts and bruises from the rough handling of the police. According to the authorities, For Human Rights’ lease expired in February and that the Moscow Government, which owns the building, did not wish to renew it due to unpaid rent.

The authorities claimed the organization had received ample warning and requests to leave the premises, but had not complied.

Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.
Lev Ponomarev speaks to journalists, as city authorities raid his downtown Moscow office, 21 June 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Some liberal oppositionists were quick to paint this as yet another example of Russia’s growing clampdown on non-governmental organizations. For Human RIghts is one of Russia’s oldest and most widely known rights organizations and its founder’s activism goes back to the late Gorbachev years. Oleg Kozyrev made an explicit link [ru] between the raid and the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

Сегодня ночью, демонстративно в день и час годовщины Великой Отечественной войны, полиция и непонятные ЧОПовцы зачистили офис старейшего российского правозащитного движения “За права человека”.

Мы все знаем, почему это произошло. Потому, что это старейшее движение. Потому, что работающее и помогающее людям движение. Потому, что влиятельное.

Мы все понимаем, каким способом это сделали. Сперва массовой атакой в СМИ. Потом законами об НКО. Потом наездами прокуратуры и блокированием финдеятельности. И далее, лишив денег, создали формальный повод для выселения.

This evening, deliberately on the very day and hour of the anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War,” the police and unknown private security contractors purged the office of the oldest Russian human rights movement, “For Human Rights.”

We all know why this happened. Because it’s the oldest movement. Because it’s a movement that works with and helps people. Because it’s influential.

We all understand how this was achieved. First, mass attacks in the media. Then, the laws on NGOs. Next, investigations by prosecutors and injunctions on financing. And later, having taken their money, [the authorities] created a formal reason for the eviction.

Not everyone agreed on this point, as wealthy socialite and occasional oppositionist Ksenia Sobchak demonstrated [ru]:

Собственник имеет полное право не продлевать аренду. По Любым своим соображениям. Это Его (собственника) право. Не вижу проблемы.

The owner has the full right not to extend a lease. For any reason they want. It’s their (the owner’s) right. I don’t see any problem.

President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia.  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.
President Barack Obama meets Lev Ponomarev at the Parallel Civil Society Summit. Metropol Hotel, Tuesday, July 7, 2009, in Moscow, Russia. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, public domain.

Soon, however, the question of the eviction and beating of Mitrokhin and Ponomarev was overshadowed by revelations from Maxim Mischenko, a 35-year-old former Duma Deputy in United Russia and founder of the pro-Putin youth movement, “Young Russia.” Mischenko announced online that his organization had recovered sensitive documents that Ponomarev had allegedly attempted to destroy. Writing on LiveJournal, Mischenko explained [ru] how his people came by the documents:

Сегодня была самая короткая ночь в году. Годовщина трагических событий начала Великой Отечественной Войны. Главной темой в твиттере стала тема выселения Льва Пономарева и его фирмы… Муниципальные депутаты и активисты общероссийского движения «Россия Молодая» стали очевидцами этих событий. Сергей Полозов случайно услышал просьбу забарикадирровашихся правозащитников уничтожить пачку документов. Проследив за посыльным, он сумел найти эти документы в мусорном контейнере в одном из соседних дворов.

Today [June 22] was the shortest night of the year. The anniversary of the tragic events of the start of the Great Patriotic War. [And yet] the main theme on Twitter became the eviction of Lev Ponomarev and his enterprise… Members of the local assembly and activists from the all-Russian movement “Young Russia” [ru] were eye-witnesses to these events. Sergei Polozov [ru] happened to overhear a request from the human rights defenders to destroy a bag of documents. Following the person they sent out [to do this], he managed to find these documents in a rubbish container in one of the neighboring courtyards.

Mischenko provided scans of the documents he claimed to have found (which appeared both in English and Russian), including one to US President Obama [ru], asking him to say if he personally considered For Human Rights to be an “American agent.” Mischenko uploaded a 20-minute video [ru] (see below) depicting Young Russian activists discussing their findings, with the documents laid out in front of them. On Twitter [ru], Mischenko also claimed that the documents prove For Human Rights had received at least 100,000 USD from the US [ru], was working with LGBT groups and foreign embassies [ru], and attempting to convince major international companies like Coca-Cola not to do business with pro-regime television station NTV [ru].

Liberals were quick to disparage the “discovery.” Roman Dobrokhotov tweeted [ru]:

Ничего компрометирующего в документах они, конечно, не найдут. Но могут найти имена правозащитников работающих, скажем, на Северном Кавказе

Of course, they’re not going to find anything compromising in the documents. But they may find the names of human rights defenders working, say for example, in the North Caucasus.

One user, helen20011 [ru], pointed out that Mischenko’s very interest in these documents showed that the whole ordeal was about politics and not rent:

штурмовики отдали документы ЗПЧ кремлевским гопникам. Вот прямое док-во что ночной штурм был погромом

The raiders gave over “For Human Rights” documents to the Kremlin scumbags. This is obvious proof that the nighttime raid was a pogrom.

For Eduard Limonov, however, the alleged revelations weren’t entirely unsurprising [ru], particularly following a story in 2012 claiming Ponomarev had met with an official from the Japanese Embassy and was accused of plotting the return of the Kuril Islands to Japan in exchange for financing:

Лёва Пономарёв всё время искал денег. Я далёк от мысли, что он искал денег для самого себя. Он искал денег для организации, для оплаты оффиса в престижном центре Москвы, для оплаты сотрудников и оргтехники. Как для блатных бизнесменов дорогой автомобиль, офис стал для Пономарёва признаком статусности и авторитета.

Leva [a slightly mocking diminutive] Ponomarev was looking for money the whole time. It’s hardly my opinion that he was looking for this money for himself. He was looking for money for the organization, to pay for the office in Moscow’s prestigious city center, to pay his colleagues and for IT. Just as a blatnoi businessman needs an expensive car, the office became for Ponomarev a sign of status and authority.

There’s little indication For Human Rights has committed any crime, according the documents Mischenko has posted online. But the move has put Ponomarev and his supporters on the back foot again, turning what should have been a propaganda victory into a PR quandary. For Human Rights’ current troubles offer a simple lesson for other NGOs in Russia: pay your rent on time and invest in a shredder.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/26/russian-ngos-learn-to-invest-in-paper-shredders/

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Russians See Themselves in Turkish Protests

While Istanbul continues to be rocked by mass demonstrations [en] against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the RuNet has been actively observing and discussing the events. Turkey is a popular holiday destination with Russians, who are drawn there by its beaches, proximity, low prices and a visa-free travel agreement with Russia. Last year alone nearly 3 million Russians visited Turkey. While some interest in current events there can therefore be chalked up to concerns for non-refundable travel packages, Russia itself has been no stranger to street protests in the last two years. Many Russians were quick to draw parallels: both between the two protest movements and the two political leaders.

From the start, most Russian sympathies have tended to be with the protesters, a phenomenon the controversial writer and head of the Other Russia opposition group Eduard Limonov ascribed [ru] to the Russian national character:

Мы, российские граждане, всегда надеемся, что восставшие против своих правительств победят, всегда инстинктивно встаём на их сторону. Объясняется этот феномен крайне просто. Поскольку мы ненавидим своё правительство и всё руководство нашей страны, и хотим, чтобы оно оставило нас, как можно быстрее; мы солидаризируемся инстинктивно с любой борьбой против правительств.

We Russian citizens always hope that those rising up against their governments will win, instinctively flocking to their side. This phenomenon is quite easily explained. As we hate our government and all those who rule our country and want for them to leave us, the quicker the better, we instinctively express our solidarity with any struggle against the state.

"Unrest in Istanbul", June 11, 2013, Photo by  Eser Karadağ CC2.0
“Unrest in Istanbul”, June 11, 2013, Photo by Eser Karadağ CC2.0

Limonov, however, went on to explain that in Turkey’s case the sympathy was not just a reflex. Noting the centrality of environmentalism to sparking the Taksim protests, Limonov wrote “the Turks appeared very similar to us, like Chirikova and her Khimki Forest [en].”

Limonov wasn’t alone, as many Russians took to Twitter and LiveJournal to express their support of the protesters. Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who blogged about the Istanbul protests from the ground, was highly critical [ru] of Erdoğan’s response (he was later detained, beaten [ru] and deported from Turkey [en].)

По поводу переговорщиков (вчера одиннадцать человек ездили к Эрдогану на переговоры, насколько я понял, ни о чем не договорились, но это не точно) – не то, чтобы разброд и шатание, но разговоры уже начались. Очень грамотный ход со стороны Эрдогана. Разделяй и властвуй. Умно. У Путина учится.

As for the negotiators (yesterday [June 12, 2013] eleven people went to Erdoğan for negotiations, as far as I known they haven’t reached any agreement, but that’s not clear) — it’s not so much confusion and disharmony [that they’ve caused], but people have already started to talk. An expert move on Erdoğan’s part. Divide and rule. Clever. He’s learning from Putin.

Comparisons of Erdoğan to Putin abounded, particularly on Twitter. Real_Estate_Mos [ru] tweeted:

Эрдоган – это такой турецкий Путин..

Erdoğan is a sort of Turkish Putin

Riffing on both leaders’ fondness for presenting themselves as public servants, sergeiolevskii [ru] tweeted:

Эрдоган: “я слуга народа”.
Путин: “я как раб на галерах”.
Чего же так сложно избавиться от этих слуг и рабов?

Erdoğan – “I’m a servant of the people”
Putin- “I work like a galley slave”
Why is it so hard to get rid of these servants and slaves?

Pro-Putin Russians were reticent to voice their support for Erdoğan, under whose premiership Russo-Turkish relations have soured, particularly over the issue of Syria. Nevertheless, Nikolai Starikov, a hard-line Putin supporter, writer, and conspirologist stated [ru] that the protests had been whipped up by the Americans in order to create disorder in Turkey and force the government to support Syrian opposition fighters, which Starikov alleges they have been trying to avoid:

Не хочет – нужно заставить. И вот «турецкая весна» на улицах. Погромы, драки с полицией, попытки штурма офисов правящей партии. И все из-за планов сноса одного парка, как говорят нам СМИ? Полная чушь. Цель беспорядков – заставить Турцию активно вписаться в сирийский конфликт и помочь исламистам.

[Turkey] doesn’t want [to get involved] so they need to be compelled. And there you have it: “The Turkish Spring” is on the streets. Pogroms, clashes with police, attempts to storm the offices of the ruling party. And all from plans to demolish a single park, as the media says? Complete rubbish. The aim of the disturbances is to force Turkey to sign up for the Syrian conflict and help the Islamists.

In the past Starikov has repeatedly claimed the US State Department is behind Russia’s opposition movement, as an active means of weakening the country.

Twitter user aliciamillor [ru] made an argument in a series of tweets [ru] that since Erdoğan had offered to hold a referendum on the park, he was better than some other western politicians:

Браво! Эрдоган предложил провести референдум. Того же самого требовали фр-зы по поводу гей браков. Олланд отказал в груб форме,собаками и газом. Вывод – Эрдоган больше демократ чем Олланд.

Bravo! Erdoğan has proposed holding a referendum. The French demanded the same thing for gay marriage. [French President] Hollande refused this very rudely, with dogs and [tear] gas. Consequently, Erdoğan is a bigger democrat than Hollande.

One Russophone group that did seem to mostly support Erdoğan were citizens of the Central Asian republics, most of whom are Turkic peoples, ethnically and linguistically related to the Turks of Anatolia. One user [ru, uz] in Uzbekistan (whose own president responded to popular protest in 2005 by massacring [en] hundreds of people) applauded Erdoğan [ru] for his relative restraint:

Эрдоган поступил правильно , предупредил , не отреагировали , и теперь выгнал всех нахрен !!! и вообще можно было без предупреждении

Erdoğan has acted correctly, he warned [the protesters], they didn’t react, and now he’s gotten them the hell out of there!!! and anyway, he didn’t have to warn them

Another user, Eva_Alli [ru, kg] of Kyrgyzstan, whose country has also been plagued by unstable government, also praised [ru] Erdoğan’s steadfastness.

Эрдоган красавчик. нам бы такого. знает, что делает, имеет свою точку зрения и ни перед кем не пасует. лев в мужском роде. одним словом.

Erdoğan is one cool dude. Would that we had someone like that. He knows what he’s doing, has his own point of view and nothing gets past him. A sort of a lion, in a word.

Leonine Erdogan is anything but cowardly, according to some RuNet users. YouTube screenshot. June 18, 2013.
Leonine Erdogan is anything but cowardly, according to some RuNet users. YouTube screenshot. June 18, 2013.

Each of these groups of RuNet users perceives Turkey through the prism of their own domestic concerns: members of the opposition see an example to follow, while regime supporters see the disturbances as evidence of foreign meddling and western hypocrisy. Conversely, Central Asians seem to envy their Anatolian cousins for having a more moderate or more decisive leader than they do. While social media has clearly made it much easier for users to closely follow and discuss events thousands of kilometers away, their concerns suggest that for many, all politics is still local.

This post originally appeared on Global voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/19/russians-see-themselves-in-turkish-unrest/

Russia’s New Exiles

At first there appears to be little linking these three men. One is a 28-year-old entrepreneur and founder of Russia’s most popular social network; the second, a respected economist who has been an advisor to Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev; and the third, a world-renowned former chess grandmaster and outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

What links Pavel Durov, Sergei Guriev and Garry Kasparov together is that all three have fled Russia in the past three months amid fears of politically motivated prosecution. They are, in effect, a new generation of Russian exiles.

Exile was a common fate for dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov in the 1970s and 1980s. Post-Soviet Russia has, by and large, avoided such heavy-handed tactics. However, the latest string of high-profile emigrants suggests the Kremlin may be turning the screws on previously untouchable figures.

Pavel Durov, occasionally called “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg“, is the multimillionaire founder of social network, VKontakte. Durov’s troubles began in April of this year when police announced he was suspected in a hit-and-run incident in St. Petersburg, where a traffic cop was injured by a white Mercedes. Video of the incident was broadcast on Russian television. Durov denied he was the driver and stated he didn’t even own a car.

On April 17, Russia’s feared Investigative Committee raided the company’s headquarters. The following day, it was announced that Durov’s business partners, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, who owned 48 percent of the company’s voting shares, had sold them to United Capital Partners. UPC’s President, Ilya Sherbovich, has strong links to the Kremlin and sits on the board of directors of both Rosneft, (Russia’s state oil company) and Transneft (Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly). Saint Petersburg police announced they wished to speak to Durov as a “witness.”

Durov has disappeared, most likely to Italy, where he spent much of his formative years. Durov, who identifies as a libertarian and has refrained from personally criticizing the regime, likely fell foul of the authorities for his refusal to shut down groups on his site and hand over information on users involved in the protests that arose in the wake of December 2011’s Duma elections.

Sergei Guriev was Rector of Russia’s prestigious New Economic School and a board member of Russia’s Sberbank until May 30, when he tendered his resignations and announced that he would not be returning from France, where he was visiting his wife and children. Guriev wrote an article in The New York Times explaining that he had been targeted by the Investigative Committee following recommendations he had made in a report calling for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch imprisoned on charges of tax fraud. Amnesty International considers Khodorkovsky to be a prisoner of conscience.

Guriev claimed he was called (like Durov) as a “witness”, but was subjected to interrogations and extensive requests for personal documents about the Khodorkovsky case. He stated that he and his wife were under surveillance and he had concluded his liberty was under threat.

Following Guriev’s announcement, on June 6 another high-profile Russian, former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, announced that he too would not be returning to Russia. Kasparov has been an outspoken critic of Putin for some time and has been arrested before for illegal demonstrations.

On his Facebook page, Kasparov explained (in English) that, “Putin is cracking down harder than ever and is showing he is willing to create a new generation of political prisoners unseen since the days of Stalin. I have already been ‘invited’ to speak to prosecutors and such invitations have a way, at a minimum, of limiting one’s freedom of movement. Adding another victim to the regime’s list will not do much good.”

The three cases display striking similarities. In each, the individual is questioned by members of the feared Investigative Committee, often as a “witness” to another case. The questioning and requests for personal information both interfere with the individual’s day-to-day life and create a pervading sense of unease and fear. The cumulative effect of this questioning is to leave the individual in no doubt that life will be much easier if he or she leaves the country.

This process is much easier than actually putting people on trial. The departure of a high-profile individual creates much less of an impact in the Western press than the highly politicized trials of opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, on trial for alleged fraud, members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot, or Khodorkovsky. The process also gives the Kremlin plausible deniability – Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov claims Guriev’s move is solely for personal reasons and he is not wanted for any crime.

The Kremlin has discovered it is better to have troublemakers move abroad than to make potential martyrs of them at home. With Russia currently clamping down on dissent on all fronts, we can expect to see more high-profile Russians packing their bags for good in the future.

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-alan-kennedy/russias-new-exiles_b_3430867.html

Russia Eyes Another Orphan Experiment

It’s been a particularly bad year for Russia’s long-suffering orphans. First they became unwitting pawns in Russia’s diplomatic spat with the US, and adoptions by Americans were banned [GV] in retaliation for the American “Magnitsky List” back in December 2012. Then, on May 30, 2013, Pavel Astakhov, the Russian Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, proposed a ban [en] on adoptions by France, citing France’s new laws on same-sex marriage. Perhaps eager to head off suggestions he was merely curtailing orphans’ opportunities for adoption, rather than expanding them, on June 7, Astakhov proposed a new, experimental programme [ru] where Russian orphans could be put up for adoption in different regions of the country.

“Странно, что итальянец, француз, немец приезжают в Россию и могут взять ребенка, а житель Северо-Кавказского или Дальневосточного федерального округа не может взять ребенка в Москве или Нижнем Новгороде. Это возможно.”

It’s strange that an Italian, a Frenchman or a German can come to Russia and take a child, but someone living in the North Caucasus or the Far-East Federal District can’t take a child from Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod. This is a possibility.

"Explaining Dipping Sticks to Russian Orphans" Kaluga, Russia. Photo by Robert Dann CC 2.0
“Explaining Dipping Sticks to Russian Orphans” Kaluga, Russia. Photo by Robert Dann CC 2.0

Astakhov went on to claim that “If we are talking about an experiment, then I’m not opposed to an experiment”. He should probably have chosen his words more carefully, as the idea of sending Russia’s highly-politicized orphans to the restive North Caucasian Republics as a kind of social “experiment” was overwhelmingly condemned by netizens of all political stripes.

Russian nationalists were naturally incensed. One blogger, fotograf_1 (whose blog is simply called “Slav”), pulled no punches [ru].

Мои глаза меня обманывают?! Да этим детям сломают психику, их будут насиловать, их будут учить убивать, их будут воспитывать в ненависти к русским. А если нет, то что? они будут овец пасти в горах?! да к этим детям будут относиться как к рабам, если не хуже!

Are my eyes deceiving me!? These children will have their psyches broken, they’ll be raped, they’ll be taught to kill, they’ll be brought up to hate ethnic Russians. And if not, then what? They’ll tend sheep in the mountains?! These children will be treated like slaves, if not worse!

The theme of slavery was brought up by another nationalist blogger, belyaev [ru], who wrote [ru]

К примеру, не так давно в СМИ просочилась информация, что прямо на автобусной остановке в Махачкале был организован рынок рабов, который «крышевали» полицейские. Местный блогер Закир Магомедов, который и привлёк внимание к этому ужасу, даже приводил цены на живой товар – 15 тысяч рублей за мужчину и за 150 тысяч за девушку. Ну а сколько приходит сообщений про рабов, освобождённых с кирпичных заводов Кавказа, лучше вообще промолчать.

Look at the recent example exposed by the media [ru], where a slave market was organised at a bus stop in Makhachkala, which was “under the protection” of the police. Local blogger Zakir Magomedov, who brought this horrific story to public attention, even gave the prices for the living goods – 15,000 rubles [460 USD] for a man and up to 150,000 rubles [4,600 USD] for a girl. And I’ll save my breath on the subject of how many slaves have been liberated from brick factories in the Caucasus.

Belyaev was referring to the case of Andrei Popov [en], a soldier who claims he was kidnapped and forced to work in a brick factory in Dagestan. Such fears are not the sole preserve of hard-line nationalists. News of the story prompted over 300 comments [ru] on Andrei Malgin’s popular opposition blog [ru], the overwhelming majority of them negative and many of them xenophobic or Islamophobic.

Even otherwise liberal Russians were less than impressed. Blogger yttytt [ru] sarcastically tweeted [ru]:

А меня Астахов порадовал свежестью мысли: отдадим сирот на Северный Кавказ, обратим в мусульманство и дадим в руки по автомату “Борз”. Ура!

I’m pleased with Astakhov’s original thinking: give orphans to the North Caucasus, convert them to Islam and put a “Borz” [en] machine gun in their hands. Hurray!

The announcement was also discussed on the popular liberal opposition Facebook group “We Were On Bolotnaya Square and We’ll Come Again“[ru], where the reaction [ru] was entirely negative:

Diallo Marina: У них девочка считается женщиной лет с 12 . Об этом он подумал?

Diallo Marina: They consider a girl to be a woman when she turns 12. Has [Astakhov] thought about that?

Olga Leonova: А что? И вырастят…боевиков

Olga Leonova. So what? They’ll raise them… to be [terrorist] fighters

Leonid Jerschow: Похоже, Астахов нашел способ подготовки террористов с европейской внешностью

Leonid Jerschow: Looks like Astakhov has found a means of creating terrorists with a European appearance

The Kremlin has expended a great deal of blood and treasure over the last 20 years ensuring that the North Caucasus remains within the Russian Federation and has broadly succeeded in this aim. But while the threat of secession now seems remote, for the vast majority of Russians the North Caucasus and her people remain decidedly hostile and alien. Opposition activists from across the ideological spectrum have come to associate the region with the worst excesses of corruption and lawlessness, and resent the massive subsidies that go to local despots like Leader of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov [en]. Perhaps Astakhov’s proposal was designed to bridge this divide and bring ethnic Russians and the peoples of the North Caucasus closer together. If that’s the case, then the public outcry shows it’s going to take a lot more than a few adoptions to change xenophobic attitudes.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/06/11/russia-eyes-another-orphan-experiment/

Russians & Cigarettes: A Hard Goodbye

Russia is one of the heaviest smoking countries in the world. While 39 percent of Russians smoke, the figure rises to 60 percent among Russian men (for comparison, the figure is about 21 percent for both sexes in the UK). Russian attitudes and laws on smoking have been incredibly lax when compared to the rest of Europe. Russians have been free to feed their nicotine addictions not only in bars, restaurants and cafes, but in schools, hospitals, many forms of public transport, government buildings and apartment complexes. Adverts for cigarettes decorate the nation’s street corners and metro systems, and fill the pages of Russian publications. Taxes on cigarettes are negligible and a pack of Marlboro can be purchased for less than two dollars, with domestic brands available for half that.

Russian's smoking habits know few boundaries. "Bad Habit," Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.
Russians’ smoking habits know few boundaries. “Bad Habit,” Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.

The Russian government aims to change this and, on Saturday, June 1, 2013, it instituted a new law “On the Protection of the Health of Citizens from the Effects of Passive Tabacco Smoke and the Consequences of Tabacco Consumption” [ru], banning smoking in government buildings, educational facilities, healthcare facilities, the lifts and corridors of apartment complexes, train stations, and inside most trains. The law also mandates tough restrictions on tobacco advertising, increases taxes on the smoking industry, raises penalties for sales to minors, and paves the way to a phased introduction of similar bans in shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Back in October 2012, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev himself used his blog to disseminate a video (see below) explaining the government’s reasons for introducing such a law, noting that Russia’s smoking rate was abnormally high (comparable only to China’s) and that, since the 1990s, the percentage of Russian women who smoke had risen from 7 to 22 percent, while the age at which a person first smoked on average had fallen from 15 to 11.

While official figures [ru] state that between 70 and 80 percent of the population supports these new measures, the law has proved controversial on the Russian blogosphere, where many took issue with it for a variety of reasons. Blogger Nicolai Troitsky (pictured in his LiveJournal profile enjoying a cigarette) claimed that he was joining the recently established “Common Russian Movement for the Rights of Smokers” [ru]. Troitsky denounced the legislation in the strongest possible terms in his post, “Stop the Genocide Against Smokers!” [ru].

тоталитарная, гестаповская, фашистская борьба с курильщиками, больше похожая на истребление, на геноцид, противоречит всем нормам здравого смысла. Целая немалая группа граждан демонстративно лишается элементарных прав.

This totalitarian, gestapo-like, fascist fight with smokers is more like an extermination, a genocide, running counter to all norms of common sense. An entire group of citizens is having its basic rights violated.

While Troitsky was apparently happy to confirm Godwin’s Law in his opening salvo, hyperbole was not the sole preserve of smokers. Duma Deputy Igor Lebedev took the time to pen an article titled, “‘The Rights of Smokers’ Are ‘The Rights of Drug Addicts’ and ‘The Rights of Murders'” [ru]:

Привычка, конечно, сильна. Причем не только привычка курильщиков к никотину, но и наша общая привычка видеть вокруг себя людей с белыми бумажными дымящимися палочками во рту. Надо сделать так, чтобы вид прилюдно курящего человека вызывал такую же реакцию, как и вид прилюдно “ширяющегося” наркомана. По сути, это одно и то же.

The habit is strong, of course. Not just the smokers’ nicotine habit, but also our common habit of seeing people around us with smoking white paper sticks in their mouths. We need to make it so that the sight of a person smoking in front of people will bring the same reaction as the sight of a drug addict “shooting up” in front of people. After all, they are one and the same.

Lebedev, a member of the ultra-nationalist political party LDPR, also underlined that “smoking is not a Russian tradition—the habit was introduced by Peter the Great” (that is, 300 years ago).

The more liberal Anton Nossik criticized the law on the grounds that the coercive measures contained in the laws would prove fruitless [ru].

в любой стране, где за последние 10 лет достигнуты ощутимые успехи в борьбе с курением, мы видим огромный спектр усилий, направленных именно на помощь курильщикам в бросании курить… А там, где это направление работы задвинуто, никакие даже самые жёсткие репрессивные меры не помогают. Мы это недавно тут обсуждали на примере французских драконовских мер, результат которых с 2000 по 2010 год оказался нулевым. И британских программ помощи курильщикам, которые за тот же период помогли снизить число страдающих зависимостью в полтора раза.

In any country where they’ve achieved an apreciable success in the fight against smoking, we see the massive spectre of efforts centered namely on helping smokers to quit… But where the direction of the work is forceful, even the harshest, most repressive measures don’t help. We recently discussed [on Nossik’s blog] the example of France’s repressive measures, the results of which between 2000 and 2010 turned out to be nothing. And the British program of helping smokers in the same period lowered the number of those suffering [nicotine] dependence by one-and-half times.

Many Russians, however, were less interested in the law as a question of rights and simply focused on the likelihood of it being enforced or enforceable. As Osik101195 bluntly tweeted [ru]:

Если вы думаете, что антитабачный закон будут соблюдать в России, то вы точно ебанутый

If you think the anti-tabacco law will be observed in Russia, then you’re a complete f*cking idiot

Writing several days after the law’s adoption, MindNasty painted a grim picture [ru] of the efficacy of the ban:

В тамбуре электрички курили два контролера, выдыхали дым в табличку “Не курить”. Обсуждали антитабачный закон. Не вижу смысла в этом законе.

Between the carriages on the train, two ticket inspectors were smoking, blowing their smoke at the “No Smoking” sign. They were discussing the anti-tabacco law. I don’t see the point of this law.

For all the controversy, Russia’s new smoking laws are broadly similar to legislation most Western countries have had for over 20 years (not coincidentally, its smoking rates are similar to those of countries like the UK 30 years ago). With 400,000 Russians dying from smoking-related illnesses every year, the government has a huge incentive to increase public health and implement anti-smoking legislation, but whether Russia’s population is willing to obey or its police are ready to enforce such legislation remains to be seen.

This post first appeared on Global Voices at http://globalvoicesonline.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=416413&action=edit