Aleksandr Verkhovsky on how Russia fights extremism and xenophobia

17 June 2021

Radio Liberty interviews Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

Russia is fighting extremism and xenophobia with all its strength. They continue to ban more organizations and make the penalties harsher for those who were ever connected with them. Agents from Centre “E” (Centre for Combatting Extremism) search the internet for “incorrect” publications, from offending religious believers on TikTok to justifying terrorism on YouTube.  Meanwhile, nationalists try to attract attention to themselves and act like political hooligans, and at least 23 people in the entire country have suffered from idea-motivated violence since the beginning of the year. 

Via video connection we have in the Radio Liberty studio Aleksandr Verkhovsky, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, head of the  SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. (The Russian authorities call the Centre a “foreign agent,” but SOVA disagrees.) Aleksandr, how would you assess the fight of the Russian authorities and security services against extremism?

Aleksandr Verkhovsky: This fight has been going on for a long time: the law will soon be 20 years old. At one time, the “E” centers (Center for Combatting Extremism) achieved impressive results, practically destroying neo-Nazi street gangs that committed many murders and attacks.  That positive activity continues, and since the beginning of the year there have been 22 convictions for idea-motivated violent crimes. 

But at the same time totally different things are happening, and we hear about them more often.  Basically it is the use of Criminal or Administrative Code articles regarding what some call “extremist statements,” or participation in forbidden organizations, which themselves are quite varied, from the neo-Nazi NS/WP movement that was banned in May to the harmless, apolitical Jehovah’s Witnesses. And finally, the decision regarding the Navalny organization.  And all of that is the fight against extremism.  The problem is that, with the years, the emphasis has shifted from what is useful to society to what is harmful to society.

Marianna Torocheshnikova: And you get the impression that, in the pursuit of people who publish something “not quite right” on social media, law enforcement officers forget about the real nationalists and neo-Nazis, and also somehow rank them however they want: “We will hunt them, but them we won’t touch.” For example, members of SERB walk the streets freely, and there seem to be no objections. 

Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Anti-extremist law enforcement has always been highly political. SERB are clearly acting with the encouragement of the authorities and the police: who’d touch it? And some other groups that practice violence are prosecuted or not prosecuted to a large extent depending on who they target. Apparently, it is much safer to “fight for morality” (by their understanding) and persecute gays than to come for migrants.

Yes, law enforcement agencies often get carried away with all sorts of trifles: there’s accountability, and there are certain political attitudes, not always clear to us, that turn the cog. Sometimes it can be stopped from above, as it apparently was in 2017 when essential decisions were made to reduce the number of criminal cases for insignificant publications on social media, and then there were fewer of them. Then they partially decriminalised Article 282 and there were even fewer, but by 2020 the number was again increasing.

The fastest growing number of prosecutions comes under the article of the Criminal Code that concerns incitement or justification of terrorism. Of course, there are real incitements to terrorism, and these should be investigated if they pose a serious threat. But, in many cases, there is no serious threat. The best-known symbol of this is Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up in an FSB lobby a while ago now. But still now those speaking positively of him in any message or short post could well be accused of “justifying terrorism”.

In my opinion, the actions of those in law enforcement are not commensurate with the real threat. The strangest instance is the case opened against (and the arrest of) TikToker Yury Khovansky, who sang a song about Nord-Ost. This sounds awful, as though it is glorifying Basayev, but it is most likely a satire of the Chechnyan bloggers who did glorify him and should not be taken seriously.

Police operatives have no sense of humour and understand everything literally. Something has been written that can be brought under such-and-such an article of the Criminal Code, which means they can prosecute if necessary for them politically or bureaucratically. Meanwhile, random people are getting caught up. Right now, there is a case playing out concerning an insult to the feelings of religious individuals: teenagers were filming some idiotic scene for TikTok on the street where an icon featured.

Maryana Torocheshnikova: On the other hand, sometimes months and years are spent trying to initiate a criminal case on grounds of hostility towards someone who was attacked (for example, this concerns those in the LGBT community).

Aleksandr Verkhovsky: There is a great element of bureaucratic inertia here and, of course, an ideology. And through anti-extremist law enforcement, the state from the very beginning broadcast its ideological preferences, sending a signal to society. There was an almost forgotten article about the rehabilitation of Nazism, and recently there has been a real increase: some people online in “Immortal Regiment” posted portraits of Hitler and Vlasov. I would call it some kind of online hooliganism, but it fitted under this article, and criminal sentences were passed. This is purely ideological law enforcement, not to mention everything related to Navalny.

Maryana Torocheshnikova: Just the other day, the State Duma was flooded with bills amending current legislation. This is the law on memorialising the victory in the war, and clarifications related to the rehabilitation of Nazism … Again, the court recognised the Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist organisation. Will this lead to a new huge group of people convicted of being extremists or Nazi apologists?

Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Unfortunately, this is quite possible. Banning an organization does not automatically lead to a large number of cases, but repressive measures intensify before elections. Many acts are adopted rather for the purpose of preventive intimidation. The amendments to the article on the justification of Nazism, which included insulting veterans, is a retroactive conceptualisation of Navalny’s sentence for “slandering a veteran.” In addition, this expands the toolkit of law enforcement agencies and provides a choice: either just remove people from the elections, or to prosecute them under administrative – or criminal – law.

Translated by John Tokolish, Verity Hemp and James Lofthouse

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