For its hasty issuance of poorly written laws, the Russian State Duma is often called a “mad printer.” According to writer and journalist Alexander Podrabinek, the current Russian parliament is made up of deputies whose only aims are to please the president and retain their deputy status.
Russia’s legislation has the potential to evolve in one of two directions: it can improve, bringing Russia closer to the civilized world, or it can degrade, reverting to barbarism and lawlessness. Today we are witnessing the latter outcome—a rapid degradation of the rule of law.
It cannot be said that respect for the law in Russia has ever reached the height attained in other states in the civilized world, but after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Russian legislation gradually began to look more and more normal. Some bizarre laws of the Soviet times disappeared, and new ones that were freer of ideological overtones and more suitable for enforcement by independent courts appeared. Russia acceded to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and thereby obtained an additional and very effective tool for adjusting its national legislation.
Alas, since the early 2000s, the legislative process has been continuously reoriented to serve the narrow and vested interests of the executive, and by 2012, the degradation of the legislative process had begun to snowball.
For its hasty issuance of totally nonsensical laws the Russian State Duma has been dubbed a “mad printer.” It is hard to understand what motivates the deputies to turn out such a low-quality product and who these “representatives of the people” are anyway.
Imagine an entrepreneur who, for reasons known only to him, decides to set up a business not to manufacture high-quality products, but to create the illusion of such manufacturing. Perhaps he needs to launder money, or perhaps he is fed up with his reputation as a gambler and speculator and now wants to show his friends that he is also a creator of wealth and jobs. His motives might not be obvious, but one thing is clear: he wants to look like someone rather than to be someone.
He will spend as little money as he can on his product, because it will not bring him real benefits anyway. Consequently, he doesn’t need to employ highly paid specialists or professionals. He can easily make do with cheaper workers with fake certificates and degrees. After all, their only job is to produce sound effects that will create the appearance of vigorous industrial activity. He will expect them to be totally loyal and willing to implement all of his ideas.
What will these fake employees working for this extravagant businessman do? First, they will indulge his every whim; second, they will try to anticipate his wishes; and third, they will jump down the throat of anyone who accuses them of unprofessionalism or brown nosing.
This situation is being replicated today in the State Duma because of Vladimir Putin’s desire to simulate the activities of democratic institutions without actually taking democratic steps. As a result of many years of artificial adverse selection in the State Duma, an anti-elite has formed—a body of culturally immature deputies who are motivated exclusively by their desires to please the president and to preserve their cushy seats.
As a result of many years of artificial adverse selection in the State Duma, an anti-elite has formed—a body of culturally immature deputies who are motivated exclusively by their desires to please the president.
In May, Yevgeny Fyodorov, a deputy of the United Russia Party, suggested that persons guilty of “infringement against the sovereignty, inviolability and territorial integrity of Russia” be deprived of any official awards they had previously received. This proposal was probably a continuation of his previous creative idea to restore to the Criminal Code an earlier provision on “prejudice against the sovereignty, inviolability and territorial integrity of the country.” That provision was introduced in 1926, together with the new Criminal Code, and was part of Article 58 of the RSFSR Criminal Code until 1960, when it became part of the Code’s new Article 64 on “high treason,” an offense punishable by death. Today, this offense is not viewed in quite the same way, with Deputy Fedorov suggesting a punishment of 20 years to life imprisonment. And until such article is back, just to deprive of awards anyone, who, according to the deputy Fedorov, does not like Russia and criticizes its government.
Last November, Oleg Mikheev, a deputy from the Just Russia Party, proposed that people convicted of “desecrating” the Russian national anthem be sentenced to prison for up to one year. The resourceful deputy came up with this idea in order to attract his superiors’ notice: currently, individuals face criminal liability for desecration of the national flag and national emblem, but not for desecration of the national anthem. Previously, Mikheev had also prepared a draft law on criminal liability for insulting patriotic feelings. Mikheev’s proposal would have equated such insults with extremism and would have required the amendment of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of human dignity). The maximum penalty under this article was five years in prison. “I think [such insults are] totally unacceptable in a country where taking pride in our history remains the main ‘spiritual bond’ of the nation,” the deputy explained.
However, it seems like this “pride in our history” and these “spiritual bonds” exist separately from a concern for one’s own welfare. Only a few months after the patriotic bills were introduced, Mikheev faced criminal charges. According to the Investigative Committee, he was implicated in the misappropriation of 14 real estate assets belonging to the Volgograd engine plant valued in excess of half a billion rubles, as well as in an attempted theft by fraud of 2.1 billion rubles. He was also accused of obstruction of justice. Given such a scale of corruption, even a concern for “spiritual bonds” might not help.
Deputy Irina Yarovaya is the author and co-author of several bills criminalizing insults to memorable anniversaries, toughening penalties for violations of the rules on organizing mass events, and reintroducing criminal responsibility for libel, as well as the law on “foreign agents.”
Deputy Elena Mizulina has authored bills on Internet censorship, on abortion bans, and on bans on the adoption of Russian children by Americans. She has proposed introducing taxes on divorce, prohibiting surrogacy and promotion of homosexuality, and taking children (even biological children) away from same-sex parents. As a “positive” step, Mizulina has suggested including in the preamble to the Constitution a provision that Orthodoxy is the basis of Russia’s national and cultural identity.
A common feature of all of these bills is that they all ban something. Legislators’ imaginations cannot extend beyond prohibitions. These are the only things that can earn them appreciation from the supreme power, because the country’s leadership needs guardians of the regime and protective laws.
Fedorov, Mikheev, Yarovaya, and Mizulina are only the most striking examples of the 450 Russian lawmakers. These are the most successful and effective deputies in the legislature today, but their focus lies not in improving legislation, but in the mass production of legal norms that ensure that power is permanent and society stays oppressed. These legislators are not able to create anything else, because such work requires professionalism, respect for people, and basic decency.