In mid-summer 2016 the law “On the basis of the system of crime prevention” came into force. If understood literally, this law should be useful for prevention of crime and protection of people in difficult situations, such as homeless or those with a dependency on alcohol and drugs. But with a high degree of probability we can expect this law to be a new pretext for the state to “put on record” the very representatives of these “protected groups” and anybody else “failing to be up to the standards”. Article 2 of the law defines “anti-social behavior” as “actions, which do not entail administrative or criminal responsibility… but violate generally accepted standards of behavior and morals, rights and legitimate interests of others”. In fact, people who have committed no wrong, become the object for the application of preventive measures, which, above all, runs contrary to one of the most important principles of “everything that is not prohibited by law is allowed”. If one takes into account the fact that the “social norms of behavior and morality” are not defined in this or other Russian laws, it remains unclear what particular actions will be considered “anti-social”.
To a large extent, provisions of the new law duplicate regional legal instruments for prevention of crime, which have existed for several years. Although more than three months passed since the signing of the law, it remains yet to be seen what local authorities do in order to improve the situation of the most vulnerable groups. But it looks like the opposite is happening: people are often being deprived of their housing, employment, opportunities to educate their children, thus, more and more “difficult situations” are being created. In Tula region over the summer more than a hundred Roma houses were demolished, and in October a similar “solution” was sought by the local authorities through court ruling in respect to the second largest Roma camp in Tula region at Kosaya Gora. Was it this, that was meant by the lawmakers, when they wrote about “measures for the prevention and combating of homelessness and assistance to people who are in difficult situations”? In Tula region there exists an official program for prevention of offences designed for the period of 2014-2020, but it is just one of the many existing government programs, others including the program for strengthening the unity of the Russian nation and ethno-cultural development of the peoples of Russia. However, we rather witness incitement of hatred against minorities than strengthening unity of the nation. And it is precisely Roma that the officials accuse of all possible sins in order to give the appearance of legality to the demolition of their homes and power cuts.
While the authorities are busy doing anything else but helping to solve the problem of homelessness of children and adults, homeless people survive only thanks to non-profit organizations (such as the Petersburg-based NGO “Nochlezhka”, or “Doss-house”), which continues to performing part of the state’s work on adaptation and provision of essential resources to people in need.
Russian government adheres to an even more cynical position regarding protection from alcoholism. In a difficult time of crisis, when prices are rising and people no longer have enough money for the very essentials, the only discussed price reduction is the one for vodka, which is already very cheap in Russia compared to the countries, where the state really tries to restrain consumption of this “essential product”. The government even claimed that “the amount of per capita alcohol consumption is not a significant factor for the nation’s health and public morality”. With regard to the protection of other categories of dependent people, authorities also demonstrate some absolutely top-notch care for people: non-profit organization “Panacea”, which was engaged in HIV prevention through distribution of single-use syringes and condoms among drug addicts, was forced to liquidate itself after it was labeled a “foreign agent”.
The new law also states that “citizens, public associations and other organizations” will assist the subjects of prevention of offenses listed in Chapter 2 of the law. Anton Tsvetkov, chairman of the commission on security of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, has said that those authorized to work for crime prevention should include organizations such as the one headed by him, “Officers of Russia” (which gained notoriety recently following attacks on a photo exhibition and damaging art works), or the “patriotically-minded” Cossack and Orthodox associations. It is not difficult, however, to guess which particular norms of morality will not be tolerated by such people or what kind of activities they will find “offensive”.
Among the main areas of crime prevention the law lists fighting illegal immigration. The above mentioned “Officers of Russia” association currently conduct raids at railway and bus stations, based usually on racial profiling, i.e. visual identification of people of “non-Slavic appearance”. With the adoption of the new law, all of this seems to also be officially integrated into “crime prevention”. However, the activities of non-profit organizations aimed at improving the situation of migrants and their children are not at all welcome. “Civil Assistance” association was not only recognized as a “foreign agent” this year, but also deprived of the premises, where it has conducted classes for migrant children and their parents, including legal education for these people.
Article 21 of the new law provides for a “preventive listing in order to prevent crime”, while further decision on exclusion of a person from the “black list” depends entirely on the official in charge of “anti-social elements”. In addition, the law provides for the issuing of “warnings about the inadmissibility of actions that create conditions for offences or inadmissibility of the continuation of anti-social behavior”, which are mandatory for execution. There is complete uncertainty about what exactly “anti-social behavior” is and how one can “continue” or “stop” this behavior, which leaves vast possibilities for interpretation of these issues by the authorities, which can not only list, but also punish anyone, who is not liked by them.
A police officer has explained that such a measure as a “preventive conversation”, very reminiscent of the experience of the Soviet era, will be held “in the offices, place of residence, study or work and on the spot, where the fact of anti-social behavior was detected”. In the Soviet years people were detained in the street and taken to police station in order to have such preventive conversations, as police officers could find their appearance “insulting the honor and dignity of the Soviet man”, and later the bosses of the person in question would be informed, which sometimes lead to exclusion from school or dismissal from work. The new law sets the possibility of sending a binding request “to eliminate the causes and conditions, leading to commission of the offence” and organizations (schools or companies) which receive such an order would be obliged to report on the results of consideration of the submission by the authorized bodies within a month. And for people who have attracted the attention of authorities (perhaps due to the peculiarities of their appearance or ideology) important consequences may follow. It is obvious that the observation of this poorly written law will lead to disproportionate penalties and violations of human rights, as overly broad wording of the law may lead to unexpected punishment for some inoffensive things, such as hitchhiking, for example.
It is yet unclear how the real enforcement of the new law will proceed: it is quite possible that it will be applied merely to improve the statistics of the law enforcement agencies and police officers will be able to report their progress using completely made-up stories, as it already happens, for example, with fines for profanity or jaywalking. On the other hand, the law can also become a means of dealing with participants of public protests or street art actions.
Instead of promoting really necessary measures for actual support of vulnerable groups of citizens the new law could in fact become a new tool for limiting the rights of people to freedom of expression, resembling the repressive policies of the Soviet past.
First published on the website of “Radio Liberty”