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Russia’s sham dictatorship

In recent months, Russia has adopted a slew of regulations – on freedom of assembly, free speech, the Internet, non-governmental organizations, gays and foreign adoptions – that would place it among the most repressive and backward nations on Earth.

Only one difference: So far, no one is bothering to enforce most of the rules.

Ever since Russians took to the streets en masse to protest the rigged parliamentary elections of December 2011, the country’s legislators have been working to settle scores. New laws set hefty fines for unsanctioned gatherings, create a procedure to shut down websites with “extremist” content and threaten journalists with prison terms for slander. Non-governmental organizations, some of which were active in documenting vote irregularities, must register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents” and mention this humiliating status in all their materials.

When President Vladimir Putin signed the bills into law last summer, one might have expected him to turn Russia into the political equivalent of China or worse. As it happens, the enforcement has been decidedly spotty.

There have been a few slander charges against investigative reporters, including one in the Urals region who accused a local judge of corruption, but so far no one has been convicted or jailed. Similarly, no one has been slapped with the maximum fine of 300,000 rubles ($10,000) for organizing an unsanctioned rally or participating in one, even though thousands of people have taken part in such rallies, including one near the Kremlin on Dec. 15.

Although some fines of 20,000 rubles to 30,000 rubles have been imposed, such cases are few and far between. Not a single popular website has been closed down for “extremism.” A few sites have been forced to remove pages dealing with illegal drugs.

As for the “foreign agent” law, on Jan. 16 Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov effectively told the parliament that he had no intention of implementing the legislation. According to the newspaper Gazeta.ru, he said his ministry would not compile a list of foreign agents. Instead, it would wait for law enforcement agencies to suggest candidates. “We are unable to monitor organizations for foreign funding,” Konovalov said.

Oddly, the lack of enforcement has had no effect on the parliament’s lawmaking fervor. Recent examples include a bill (which the government has asked to be thrown out) setting large fines for using offensive language in the media, a loosely worded ban on “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” (tentatively approved), and a pending bill meting out punishment for “offending religious feelings.”

The anti-swearing bill left media experts mystified. “We know it’s wrong to curse in public places and in the media; penalties and fines already exist for this,” respected TV journalist Nikolai Svanidze told the RIA Novosti news agency.

The anti-gay legislation engendered indignation in liberal media and blogs, and even sparked a fight between gay activists and religious zealots in front of parliament. Yet the experience of St. Petersburg, where a similar law has been in effect since March, suggests it will have little effect. Only one person has been affected: Gay rights activist Nikolai Alexeyev was fined 5,000 rubles ($167) for picketing City Hall with a poster saying “Homosexuality is no perversion. Hockey on grass and ballet on ice are.” His case is now working its way through the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

To be sure, the recently passed law banning foreign adoptions – retaliation for a U.S. law placing sanctions on corrupt Russian officials – is likely to be strictly enforced. Putin has actively championed the measure, speaking passionately on several occasions about the wrongs done to Russian children in the United States.

For the most part, though, the parliament has succeeded in painting Russia as a country where civil liberties are ruthlessly repressed – without having much actual effect. All its best efforts to run an intimidation campaign are being systematically mocked and ignored by those in power.

“The experience of the last eight or nine months has taught us that the Duma is just working for its own sake,” said journalist Yuri Saprykin, a prominent figure in last winter’s protests. To enforce the laws as written, “you would have to induct half the country into the police force and sick them on the other half.”

Columnist Oleg Kashin noted a difference in some of the more recent laws: They are aimed at groups that are not particularly dangerous to Putin’s rule. As such, they could in the future prove useful to the Kremlin, should it ever want to undertake some symbolic liberalization.

“The list of reforms that could be immediately announced would be much more impressive,” Kashin wrote on openspace.ru. “One could lower the fines for taking part in rallies, abolish the ‘foreign agent’ notion, decriminalize slander and so on, all the way up to allowing U.S. citizens to adopt Russian orphans.”

Even if Kashin’s hypothesis proves untrue, one thing is certain: The parliament has used its year in power to turn Russia from a pretend democracy into an equally fake dictatorship.

Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View.

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