Aleksandr Verkhovsky: Anyone can become an extremist. On the ‘Strategy for Combating Extremism’

2 June 2016

Leonid Nikitinsky interviews Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director, Sova Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

The Strategy to Combat Extremism’ does not contain definitions of specific crimes, but provides guidance to law enforcement agencies.

On 29th May, President Putin approved by decree the ‘Anti-Extremism Strategy up to 2025.’ Novaya gazeta columnist Leonid Nikitinsky spoke with a leading expert in this field, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, director of the Sova Information and Analytical Centre, and laureate of a Moscow Helskinki Group prize, Aleksandr Verkhovsky.

What is the ‘Strategy up to 2025’, approved by the President on 29th May? Why only until 2025 — will extremism will be over after that? What does it mean?

This is a regularly updated document. The first similar ‘strategy’ was approved in 2014, but most of your readers will have hardly heard of it.

Such documents do not establish any standards for citizens; on the basis of the Strategy alone, no one can be punished for anything. It is addressed to the group of civil servants who ‘work on the topic’. Roughly, these are two categories of officials.

The first, very broad category is responsible for the prevention of extremism. The text reflects the ideas of ​​its authors about where extremism comes from and what the state should do to reduce it.

Whatever the word ‘extremism’ means, the ideas about its origins have changed very little over the years: these are foreign countries (not only the West), ethnic or religious minorities that are considered ‘non-traditional’ in Russia, uncontrolled youth associations (like ideologically-driven sports clubs), and so on.

I am glad to see that the list includes ‘discrimination.’

All of this, to one degree or another, is related to reality, and it would be interesting to discuss, but more so in connection with actual reality, and not with an internal document.

Passages of the ‘strategy’ are unlikely to have any direct effect on officials. To do this, we need a fully-fledged state programme: with financing, commitments and deadlines for departments.

The authors of the document also understand this, and therefore included lists of indicators and results in the Strategy, and pointed out that a government resolution with specific instructions would be adopted, and that funds had been allocated. It will then be necessary to discuss the appropriate course of action.

In a narrower sense, the Strategy is addressed to lawmakers who regularly update anti-extremist norms, and, of course, law enforcement agencies that then apply these norms, in particular specialised anti-extremist police units.

This document gives them clues on where they could be paying more attention. 

Does this mean that we also have to read the Strategy carefully in order to know where and what we, as potential ‘extremists’ may run into? 

Yes, this area is very broad and the markers are not very clear, so almost every activist, journalist or social network user could one day wake up an ‘extremist.’

There are many examples – you could make an unsuccessful joke, sometimes they may attribute to you the opposite of what you intended.

That’s what happened in the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva: she tried to explain the Archangelsk terrorist’s act, but they construed this as support and launched a criminal investigation.

Legally speaking, the field of ‘extremism’ extends from real ideologically motivated violence (and here the boundary with counter terrorism is very blurred) to completely innocent opposition protests. The bulk of such cases now falls into two categories.

The first is participation in banned organisations and ‘extremist groups’: from groups focused on violence, such as Misanthropic Division, to unreasonably banned religious associations like Jehovah’s Witnesses (both organisations are called extremist and their activities are banned in Russia).

The second category is public statements, in one form or another, that express hatred or call for discrimination and violence towards another category of people.

There are two other, much smaller, categories: the first is real ideologically motivated violence, and the second is public statements that, with a reasonable reading of even our laws, should not be considered criminal.

If you look at this from a political point of view, then the most significant share of ‘extremists,’ judging by the practices of law enforcement, is made up of Russian nationalists and their sympathisers. Secondly, radical Islam. And only after them come other nationalists, leftists and liberal oppositionists.

What is important is that the suppression of extremist action and even statements is, in principle, legal but ‘excesses in the field’ are possible. 

It is very difficult to navigate all this not just as an ordinary citizen, but often as an employee of an Anti-extremism Centre, and so that is why they need guidelines on exactly what to look for. Roughly speaking, the whole ‘potential extremism’ thing is too big to cover and you need to single something out. The strategy provides such guidelines. So we citizens may be interested in what has changed in them compared to 2014. 

There is a change for the better: a greater emphasis has been placed on violence in the terminology and the ‘expected outcome’, and the term ‘ideology of violence’ has been introduced. So it seems as if the Strategy is recognising that ‘violent extremism’ is important.

The term is usually to be found in the documents of international organisations, but the term ‘extremism’ is not used on its own, and moving closer to this terminology can only be welcomed. It would be even better if the legislation was changed – to link the definition of extremism with violence.

Unfortunately, however, the Strategy is sending legislators in completely the opposite direction – it harks back to the Convention on Combating Terrorism of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ratified by Russia last year.

The documents of the SCO are the only ones that contain the word ‘extremism’ to which Russia is obligated. From the time the SCO was established to the convention in 2017, it was defined as actions related to violence, but the participating countries could use broader definitions, which Russia did.

Now, the situation has changed: the new SCO Convention gives a definition that is close to Russia’s, so it is no longer tied to the idea of violence. Moreover, the definition in the convention introduces the notion of ‘political, social, racial, ethnic and religious hatred or enmity’ This is similar to the Russian model, but there is an important new word here – ‘political.’

The Russian legislation does not criminalise political hatred, and when people are prosecuted for their political opinions, such as Egor Zhukov, for example, this is at odds with the law ‘On Countering Extremist Activities’, with Article 280 of the Russian Criminal Code, which draws on the definition of extremism given in this law, and with Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code, which provides a list of forms of ‘hatred’ that does not include ‘political’.

The SCO Convention is calling for the criminalisation of political hatred to be approved. 

‘Political hatred’ – that’s quite something. Does this mean that any citizen who expresses critical political opinions is immediately labelled a criminal?

That would probably only happen in extreme cases, but there are plenty of other options available, including excessive red tape and financial duress.

It’s worth noting that the Strategy includes unapproved public events in a short list of ‘the most dangerous manifestations of extremism.’

This rhetorical fallacy is nothing new, since it appeared in the previous version of the document, but it still merits our attention. Of course, public rallies that have not been approved by the authorities sometimes involve incitements to violence by those appearing on stage, and indeed the rallies themselves sometimes descend into violence.

But this would be an uncommon occurrence, putting it mildly. And the fact that reference is made on several occasions – and in a document of this importance, which has been signed by the President – to unapproved public events as a type of extremist action greatly bolsters the arguments of the authors of propaganda who equate any protestors with extremists.

We can note that, even if – once again – none of it really makes sense; after all, what is ‘participation’? It might mean organisation with forethought or a random impulse. More generally speaking, if you start digging up ‘criminals’ so indiscriminately, anyone could fall under this category. And what does the Strategy say about spiritual bonds?

It’s hard to ignore the emphasis on them; the Strategy refers repeatedly to ‘traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.’ It places attacks against these values at the feet of certain foreign and international NGOs that are allegedly also encroaching on the country’s political stability and territorial integrity, promoting terrorism and even (note the anachronism) instigating ‘colour revolutions.’

This section of the Strategy can be interpreted in two ways. Either various enemy NGOs are specialising in different types of harmful activities (some are undermining spiritual and moral values, and others are encroaching on territorial integrity), or these enemies are working together, each with their own ‘specialism.’

I am sure that those who enforce the law will interpret all these bewildering sections of the Strategy through the lens of their own most pressing concerns. 

At the same time, the section of the Strategy on ‘Tasks incumbent upon government agencies’ states directly that steps must be taken against all these seditious activities. This statement is targeted in particular at legislators, and they are already responding to it, either because it confirms their own beliefs or because they paid close attention to the earlier drafts of the Strategy.

So, the Strategy speaks of a ‘real threat’ posed by the falsification of history outside the Russian Federation, and we already see a bill banning equating Stalinism with Nazism, and a new Article 243.4 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation conjured up under the title ‘anti-Russian vandalism’ abroad.  And work has resumed on drafting a new bill penalising cooperation with ‘undesirable’ foreign NGOs.

The Strategy also speaks of certain bodies inside Russia that are supposedly controlled by harmful foreign NGOs – this may prove a pretext for yet another bill.

Well, in general, that’s nothing new.

We need to pay attention not only to new things, but also to things that haven’t changed, but that could.  For example, the rather strange imposition of the requirement to ‘ensure the exercise of citizens’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion without offending the religious feelings of believers and the national identity of Russian citizens.’

How should that task be realised?  Maybe just ‘Stand back and don’t interfere,’ and then neither freedom of conscience, nor religious feelings, nor identity will be offended.  But it’s clear that our officials cannot just give such advice to others. Therefore, this passage reads as if it is saying that it is necessary to protect both the feelings of believers and national identity, which is in some way connected to religious identity.

In reality, this may turn into a campaign of persecution of those who have offended the ‘feelings of believers’ and those who propose alternative religious options, which many people interpret as non-traditional for a specific ethnic community — such as Protestants in the Russian context or Salafis in the Tatar community or the North Caucasus.

The vague concepts of ‘traditionality’ and ‘traditional values’ counter any social and ideological innovations that simply appear to the authorities to be hard to control.  As far as content is concerned, these can be anything, but at the level of official discourse and propaganda they are usually described as two types of dangerous novelty — Muslim fundamentalism as a source of the threat of terrorism, and Western liberalism as a source of threats to ‘traditional morals,’ to the political regime, and even to the Russian state itself.

It should be noted here that the weight given to fundamentalism in the authorities’ rhetoric has long ago been left behind by that given to Western liberalism. This means that in ‘anti-extremism’ practice, the emphasis will be placed on the latter.

The threat from radical nationalism is often mentioned in the Strategy in various contexts. But the specific importance given to this issue, perhaps, has decreased in comparison with the previous version. Which is probably natural: the number of hate crimes has also decreased, while the activity of ultra-right organizations has decreased radically. There are many reasons for this, but partly it is also an achievement of the anti-extremism police centres.

The ‘anti-extremism’ centres are themselves quite a mysterious structure. What are they?

In fact, they are part of the political police, and this institution is divided into several agencies.

Political police always have a dual function: ‘political crimes’ can be both criminal in the usual, non-political sense of the word, or not. The political police also perform normal police functions, i.e. they find a person who committed a real crime, collect evidence and bring him/her to court. They are also interested in this person’s social milieu, and not for nothing.

Terrorism or hate-based violence do exist, as does the complex structure of their public support, from organizations to ideologies, without which organized violence would be much weaker.

But if some supporters of this or that ideology really do commit ideologically motivated crimes, this does not mean such crimes are committed or at least are going to be committed by all those who hold similar views.

A tendency to confuse criminals and those who are only ideologically associated with them is a fundamental flaw in any political police force, and in ours to a high degree.

The focus of strategic planning shifts from countering what is a crime, regardless of political assessment, to countering threats of a purely ideological nature whose connection with real crimes is either non-existent or very weak.

And this shift is fraught with the risk that the political police will even more pursue innocent people or those who have committed only minor violations and perform fewer normal policing functions simply in line with the tendency of all institutions to conserve their energy.

Translated by Alice Lee, Nathalie Corbett, Nicky Brown, Joanne Reynolds, Elizabeth Teague and Simon Cosgrove.

NB Readers may be interested to note that on 10 June 2020 Argumenty i fakty published a long interview with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation in which, among other things, he made a clear reference to the Strategy that Aleksandr Verkhovsky discusses above. Patrushev said: ‘Today it is necessary to ensure the implementation of laws aimed at the stable functioning of the political system, and the changes introduced in anti-extremism legislation.’  See Виталий Цепляев, ‘Кукловодство к действию. Николай Патрушев – о методах «цветных революций»,’ АиФ, 10 June 2020 [final paragraph].

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