POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 13, 2013
MOSCOW » The members of Russia's lower house of Parliament — which last year passed so many harsh new laws with so little debate that commentators compared it to a "rabid printer" — returned to work last week as the standard-bearers for President Vladimir V. Putin's brand of patriotism.
Having captured the world's attention in December by banning all adoptions of Russian children by American families, members of Parliament have dreamed up a variety of further proposals to purge Russian politics and civic life of foreign influences.
Among them: a full ban on all foreign adoption. A requirement that the children of Russian officials return directly to Russia after studying abroad, lest their parent lose his or her post. A requirement that officials' children be barred from studying abroad altogether. A requirement that movie theaters screen Russian-made films no less than 20 percent of the time, or face fines as high as 400,000 rubles, or about $13,000.
One group of legislators is working on a bill that would prevent anyone with foreign citizenship, including Russians, from criticizing the government on television. One proposal would ban the use of foreign driver's licenses, another would require officials to drive Russian-made cars. One deputy has recommended strictly limiting marriages between Russian officials and foreigners, at least those from states that were not formerly Soviet.
Many of these ideas sound eccentric, in a capital city whose elite are well-traveled and integrated into the West, and are very unlikely to advance and become law. But they certainly will not hurt anyone's career in the current political environment.
"You know, there is a principle in questions of patriotism or protecting the interests of the country, as the authorities see it, that it's better to overdo it than to show weakness," said Alexi V. Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "If you try too hard, and come up with some exotic, scandalous draft law, you are in any case one of us. Maybe you are too emotional — you're a patriot."
Since Putin's inauguration, the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, has hurriedly passed a series of initiatives tightening the state's control over dissent and political activism: it has steeply increased fines for Russians who take part in unauthorized protests; required nonprofit organizations to register as "foreign agents" if they receive money from overseas; reinstated criminal penalties for slander; and vastly expanded the definition of treason to include assisting international organizations.
When the adoption ban passed, cutting off all adoptions of Russian children by Americans, only four deputies out of 406 voted against it, with 400 voting for it and two abstaining. Grigory A. Yavlinsky, the founder of the liberal party Yabloko, described the vote on his blog as "a unanimous pseudo-patriotic frenzy."
Over the January break, opposition activists began focusing efforts on the Duma, hoping that outrage over the adoption ban would re-energize flagging protests. Moscow City Hall has approved a Sunday demonstration targeting lawmakers, called "the march of scoundrels." The newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced Thursday that it had gathered 100,000 signatures in favor of dissolving the Duma, enough to require an official review.
"Let them come up with a draft law, for example, ‘on the right of a citizens of the Russian Federation to raise the question of lack of confidence toward the state Duma,"' reads the petition. "It is necessary to make this amendment to the Russian Constitution: ‘The people should have the right to recall deputies from their warm seats if they act contrary to its will,"' the petition reads, in part.
Yevgeny N. Minchenko, director of the International Institute for Political Expertise, said the major pieces of legislation that passed through the Duma last year were produced by staff members in Putin's administration. Last year, he said, demonstrated that the Parliament serves as an "instrument" of the Kremlin.
"Unfortunately, in my view, there is a dangerous trend that practically the only way to consolidate all the parliamentary factions is with various kinds of anti-Western initiatives," Minchenko said.
Putin has made patriotism a central theme of his third presidential term, and Yevgeny A. Fyodorov, a United Russia deputy, said strengthening Russia's sovereignty is now the Duma's "most important direction."
Fyodorov said he would like to see the constitution amended to allow for a national ideology, something that is now explicitly excluded in the text, but concedes that this will take time. He said the adoption ban — or, as he called it, "the ban on the export of children" — signaled the beginning of a major effort to "strengthen Russia's sovereignty" by purging foreign influences on civic life.
"You know the saying — we saddle up slowly, but we ride fast," he said. "The U-turn has just begun, and the most radical steps, including the ones connected to the constitution, will take place in three or four years."
Fyodorov, whose proposal to bar government officials from keeping property overseas has won some support in the Kremlin, said any permanent ties between government officials and foreign countries — a child residing abroad, or a spouse with property outside Russia — constitute a "factor of distrust" that, according to legislation passed last year, can now serve as grounds for an official's dismissal. The long-term task, he said, "is to gradually reformat the elite to fit the national mood."
"The existence of a strong connection between an official and foreign countries — I formulate this broadly — is a factor of distrust," Fyodorov said.
This mission is complicated by the fact that Moscow's ruling class is, in fact, already deeply integrated into Western Europe. One leader of the legislative campaign, a United Russia deputy, Sergei Zheleznyak, was pilloried by a blogger, Alexi Navalny, because his daughters study at exclusive institutions in Switzerland and Britain. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has determined that officials' foreign holdings must be brought under control, because they are alienating the public, said Sergei A. Markov, a political analyst who served as a legislator with United Russia until last year.
"The population considers the elite to be half-foreign," he said. "Their property is abroad, their houses are abroad, their wives are abroad, their children are abroad. Even Russian industrialists work through offshore companies. Why do these people run Russia, they say."
The proposals are bound to raise eyebrows in the West, but they are actually driven by domestic politics, analysts said. Minchenko noted that even as anti-American sentiment surged in the Duma this fall, Putin has avoided damaging steps like closing the NATO transit point in Ulyanovsk. He called the legislative campaign "carefully dosed" to avoid permanently hurting bilateral relations.
His colleague, Makarkin, was less sanguine.
"Those initiatives which yesterday seemed exotic could become reality tomorrow; we saw this happen last year," he said. "The most important thing is, there are practically no limitations."