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Friday, April 20, 2007

Making Dissent Illegal

The Associated Press reports that the Kremlin is moving quickly to make public opposition a crime, just as in Soviet times:

Russian lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed new restrictions on political extremism that will toughen punishments and could make it easier for the Kremlin to apply the rules to its opponents.

As parliament's lower house voted, a court considered a request from authorities to label an increasingly vocal opposition group as extremist.

The moves follow police crackdowns on opposition demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and signaled President Vladimir Putin's determination to control dissent in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot next March.

The State Duma voted unanimously to allow up to three years' imprisonment for vandalism motivated by politics or ideology. The loose wording of the measure could allow authorities to punish any participants in an opposition protest if violence erupted.

Meanwhile, Moscow City Court started considering the chief prosecutor's request to declare the already-banned National Bolshevik Party an extremist organization a move that would allow officials to increase punishment for its members and could discourage other Kremlin foes from joining it in protests.

The National Bolshevik Party, led by irreverent ultranationalist novelist Eduard Limonov, has played a key role in organizing ``Dissenters' Marches,'' the latest of which were held in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend.

Club-wielding police beat many participants and detained hundreds, drawing wide criticism from human rights groups and some Western governments and reinforcing opposition contentions that Putin's government is strangling democracy ahead of the elections.

``Our No. 1 goal is to end trampling on constitutional rights and create institutions that would allow public control over government,'' said Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's former prime minister and now a Kremlin critic who took part in Saturday's protest in Moscow.

Kasyanov reaffirmed his intention to run for president next March while speaking to reporters Wednesday. Russia's fragmented opposition groups are yet to decide on whether to nominate a single opposition candidate.

Garry Kasparov, one of the organizers of the Other Russia coalition of liberal and leftist forces, to which Kasyanov's party belongs, expressed hope that the opposition could agree on fielding single candidate in the fall.

Kasparov, a former chess world champion who has become a fierce Kremlin critic, hinted that he was unlikely to seek that role. ``I believe today this wouldn't help the coalition,'' he said on Ekho Moskvy radio, adding that he needed to concentrate on coordinating opposition efforts.

A group of opposition politicians and liberal economic experts on Wednesday presented a social program for a future opposition presidential candidate.

``It's an attempt to create a basis for a neo-liberal social course,'' said Irina Khakamada, a Kasyanov ally.

The program criticized the Kremlin for failing to turn the nation's soaring oil revenues toward improving health care, social insurance and education. ``The state has received huge oil proceeds, but nothing has changed in the social sphere,'' Khakamada said.

As with most actions by the opposition, the presentation was ignored by state-controlled nationwide television stations that focus on lavish coverage of Kremlin activities.

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