04.09.23 Repressions Review

Putin's Conveyor Belt: The new practice of bringing treason charges may bring repression to a whole new level

The latest data from repression monitoring by OVD-Info suggests that the scale of repression has stabilised, but this picture is likely to be deceptive. The tendency towards the stabilisation of prosecutions brought under traditional 'anti-war' charges began to emerge back in July, with approximately 30 criminal cases opened and about 20 verdicts issued each month, while there continues to be a decline in the number of new administrative cases. However, this picture is fundamentally incomplete: throughout the year, the practice of bringing cases against those who oppose the war on charges of treason has been gaining momentum, with significantly longer sentences being handed out. Journalists from 'Khodorka' have collected information on 82 such cases since the beginning of the year, but lawyers say that the FSB often does not report the opening of such cases, and in reality, their number could be several times higher. The sharp increase in the number of cases under these charges has been facilitated by both amendments to the Criminal Code, which has made them more flexible, and the implementation of a 'conveyor' for their application. Now, regional FSB offices have the authority to open such cases with the approval of a 'curator' in Moscow, and the typical way they are conducted suggests the presence of either a plan or incentive for bringing such charges. The creation of such a machine of administrative repression in an atmosphere of secrecy is fraught with the scaling up of repressive practices, taking them to a new level of mass repression.

In August, new criminal cases were opened against 29 people for their anti-war views, according to data from the monthly monitoring of repression by OVD-Info (26 in July, 29 in June, and 47 in May). Nine individuals were prosecuted for 'discrediting' (Article 280.3 of the Russian Criminal Code), eight were prosecuted for 'spreading knowingly false information' (Article 207.3), seven for 'vandalism' (Article 214), four for incitement to extremism (Article 280), and three for incitement to terrorism (Article 205.2) (some individuals faced charges under more than one article). Additionally, the courts passed verdicts for 20 individuals in the same month, with 12 defendants receiving actual prison sentences. Thus, we can see a continuation of the summer trend of stabilisation and even a slight reduction in the intensity of repression against those with anti-war views, which has previously been reported by Re:Russia. As of the end of August, OVD-Info has documented the opening of 663 criminal cases with 252 verdicts handed down in connection with anti-war views.

The most high-profile and symbolic cases include the criminal case against sociologist and left-wing publicist Boris Kagarlitsky in late July and the detention of Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the election monitoring movement 'Golos,' in mid-August. In each case, a series of searches took place at the homes of acquaintances and associates of those detained. The opening of the cases against Melkonyants and several other regional ‘Golos’ activists is undoubtedly in preparation for the upcoming election season, including the regional elections on September 10 and the presidential elections on March 17, 2024, in which the Kremlin is hoping to ensure a 'Turkmen-style' result for Putin while blocking the channels for monitoring election fraud.

Administrative prosecution for anti-war views also remained at 'low' levels in August. Under Article 20.2.3 of the Administrative Code, which deals with 'discrediting the Russian Armed Forces,' only 149 cases were opened — the lowest figure since the article came into force (296 cases in May, 285 in June, and 226 in July). However, information about criminal and administrative cases often only comes to light with some delay, so the real figures may be higher. For example, in the July monitoring figures from OVD-Info, it was reported that, as of August, there were 7,430 administrative cases opened in connection with anti-war protests since February 2022, while the August report mentions 7,683 such cases.

However, drawing conclusions about stabilisation or a reduction of repression is probably wrong; rather we are talking about a change in their profile. Recent data compiled by the investigative outlet 'Kholod' has shed light on a disturbing trend in Russia's escalating repression tactics. In the first seven months of 2023, the Federal Security Service (FSB) opened no less than 82 cases under Articles 275, 275.1, and 276 of the Russian Criminal Code, which pertain to treason-related charges. To put this into perspective, in the entire previous year, only 20 such cases were opened. These cases encompass a number of ‘offences’, including the gathering and dissemination of classified information, preparation, attempts and incitement of treason, espionage, defection to the enemy, providing financial support for the enemy, collaboration with foreign entities, and espionage in the form of treason.

It is worth noting that these cases often remain shrouded in secrecy, as they are handled directly by the FSB, leading to a lack of official documentation. According to Evgeny Smirnov, a lawyer with the human rights project 'Pervy Otdel,' the actual number of 'traitors' in Russia since the beginning of 2023 could be about three times higher than the reported cases. The surge in such cases is a result of legislative amendments that have made these articles more flexible and the implementation of a 'conveyor belt' approach to their application. Regional FSB offices have been delegated the authority to open these cases, and now merely require approval from a 'curator' in Moscow. Many of these cases exhibit a typical and blatantly fabricated nature, and some even appear to be the result of deliberate incitement by FSB personnel. All of this indicates the existence of either a plan or a reward system for generating this influx of cases.

This new wave of repression has significantly altered the overall landscape of repression in 2023. According to OVD-Info, approximately 280 criminal cases have been brought in connection with anti-war views since the beginning of the year. However, if Evgeny Smirnov's calculations are accurate, the total scale of criminal prosecutions may be twice as large. The creation of such a secretive 'repression machine' carries the risk of scaling up repressive practices and bringing them to a new level of mass repression.

In addition to these troubling developments, the practice of persecuting independent media outlets located outside of Russia by designating them as 'undesirable organisations' continued in August, with the case of the TV channel 'Dozhd' (Rain), one of the largest media outlets of its kind, joining the ranks of 'Meduza,' which was declared 'undesirable' back in January 2023. In August alone, seven organisations were labelled 'undesirable,' including the investigative project Conflict Intelligence Team. There are currently 106 organisations on the 'undesirable' list, with one-third (34) added since the beginning of this year.

Furthermore, in August, 16 individuals and organisations were designated as 'foreign agents,' including the writer Linor Goralik, economist Andrei Illarionov, journalists Vitaly Dymarsky and Konstantin von Eggert, political analyst Kirill Rogov, among others. The registry of foreign agents now lists more than 660 organisations, individuals, and informal groups.