Staunton, March 5 – There are few things Vladimir Putin takes greater pride in and is given more credit for by many Russians than ending what he viewed as the unravelling of the Russian state via a brutal, even genocidal war against Chechnya and the establishment of a hyper-centralized “power vertical” with himself at the pinnacle.
From the end of the Chechen war until the Crimean Anschluss in 2014, those who had promoted separatism earlier largely went silent and were not succeeded by others. But in the last three years and especially in recent months, separatism as an idea if not as a movement has made a comeback with more people issuing separatist agendas and some charged with crimes as a result.
The person responsible for this trend, one Putin can hardly welcome, is the Kremlin leader himself. On the one hand, by his actions in Ukraine, he has reopened the question of borders and by his increasingly repressive actions at home, Putin has made secession in the eyes of ever more people appear to be the only way out.
And on the other, Putin has overseen the imposition of ever more draconian laws about secession, something the operatives of his police state are only too willing and eager to impose in order to show their loyalty to the Kremlin – even though by doing so, they are spreading the very ideas he says he wants opposed.
In a commentary for the AfterEmpire portal, Damir Gaynutdinov, a legal specialist at the AGOR human rights group, both traces the history of laws in defense of Russia’s territorial integrity under Putin and the recent dramatic rise in the number of cases brought against Russians and non-Russians for “separatism” (afterempire.info/2017/03/03/280/).
The history of Russian law against the advocacy of separatism since 2000 has been a complicated one. In early 2001, Gaynutdinov notes, a reconciliation commission of the Duma and Federation Council agreed to drop the reconsideration of the 1998 measure that had imposed penalties in this area.
In 2004, the government came out in opposition to a draft measure on introducing criminal sanctions against those calling for separatism in Russia because the authorities said such appeals could be deal with under Article 280 which regulates extremist activity. Over the next several years, similar measures were rejected for the same reason.
But then in December 2013, a proposal to add to Article 280 a specific paragraph on separatism was adopted “with fantastic speed,” apparently in anticipation of the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the Russian government’s desire to have a law it could use against any who challenged that action.
Shortly after the law went into force in May 2014, the Duma toughened it by setting possible prison terms up to five years, including such calls as crimes of moderate severity and thus allowing for pre-trial detention, and increasing the statute of limitations so that the authorities could go after earlier actions.
The first sentence under the newly amended law was in June 2015 when Yury Avdoshkin was charged with promoting independence from Russia of the Komi Republic. He was sentenced to 200 hours of public service but then amnesties. Three months later, Rafis Kashapov, a leader of the Volga Tatar nationalists, was sentenced to three years in prison, but not for any appeal on behalf of Tatarstan but rather for insisting that Crimea is part of Ukraine.
Other cases followed in 2015-2016 including one for demanding the creation of a Urals State independent of Russia, another for independence for the Republic of Karelia, and several for declaring that Crimea is legally part of Ukraine not the Russian Federation. So far this year, an Altay man has been sentenced to six months in prison for calling for an independent Siberia.
But there are more in the pipeline, Gaynutdinov says, including charges against those who support Crimea as part of Ukraine, independence for Buryatia, and separation for Kaliningrad and Irkutsk.
Three things are striking about the application of this law. First, its primary focus seems to be to defend Putin against any suggestion he acted illegally in the case of the Crimean Anschluss. Second, it appears that the authorities are finding far more cases of separatism among ethnic Russians with regionalist agendas.
And third – and this is the most important thing because it cannot be what the Kremlin wanted – the use of this law is having the effect of promoting attention to the continued vitality of something that Putin declared victory over more than a decade ago, attention that may get more people to ask more questions about him and his country.