MOSCOW: Russia introduced a new law broadening the definition of treason yesterday, alarming opponents who say Vladimir Putin will use it to silence his critics and that almost anyone in contact with foreigners will be at risk.
The legislation allows Russians representing international organisations to be charged with treason, as well as those working for foreign states and bodies, and expands the range of actions that can be considered treasonous.
Putin signed the law on Tuesday and it took effect yesterday when it was published in the official gazette, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, despite a promise by the president on Monday that he would review it. Political opponents and rights activists say the legislation is the latest in a series of laws intended to crack down on the opposition and reduce foreign influence since he returned to the Kremlin in May for a six-year third term.
“It’s an attempt to return not just to Soviet times but to the Stalin era, when any conversation with a foreigner was seen as a potential threat to the state,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a former Soviet dissident and veteran human rights activist.
She said it would probably be used selectively against Kremlin critics and others “who irritate the authorities”.
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst sympathetic with anti-Putin protests this year, said the motivation behind the law was that “the state is more important than its citizens, so there must be as much control over citizens as possible”.
The law was backed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet KGB, and landed on the desk of longtime KGB officer Putin after being approved by both houses of parliament in the space of nine days last month.
The FSB, in a rare public comment, was quoted by state-run news agency Itar-Tass as saying the law had been updated after being unchanged since the 1960s because “foreign intelligence agencies’ methods and tactics for gathering information have changed”.
Putin whipped up anti-US sentiment during his campaign for the March presidential election, and Russian officials have said the law is needed to help prevent foreign governments using organisations in Russia to gather state secrets.
“Citizens recruited by international organisations acting against the country’s interests will also be considered traitors”, Rossiyskaya Gazeta said in a commentary on its website.
Putin has frequently accused Western nations of seeking to undermine Russia’s security and weaken the nuclear-armed nation, and has suggested they use non-governmental organisations to do so.
Moscow ordered the US Agency for International Development to cease its Russian operations in October, accusing it of seeking to influence elections.