Democratic Law-Making in Russia

Elena Shakhova,

Now is an appropriate time to summarize the work of the State Duma of the Russian Federation. The elections will be held in September 2021. 

Current Duma without any doubt made history when the deputies adopted the amendments to the Constitution of Russia. The amendments were numerous and fundamental, however they were adopted extremely quickly and without any meaningful public discussion. Moreover, opinions of the Venice Commission on some aspects of the amendments were ignored. In particular, the Venice Commission has warned against the power of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation to decide on the feasibility of the implementation of the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. The President introduced the amendments on January 20, 2020 and signed the law on March 14, 2020.

Another example of total disregard for public opinion is legislation adopted in November-December 2020. The Government and a group of Duma deputies introduced several bills concerning the status of foreign agents.  Independent anti-corruption experts pointed out that the definitions in these laws are vague and can be easily misused. These expert opinions were ignored as well as appeals of international human rights bodies. For instance, Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner of Council of Europe for Human Rights, called on the State Duma to refrain from adopting legislation which violates the rights of NGOs and civil society activists. However, voices against the amendments were disregarded and the laws adopted. Now almost anybody can receive the status of a foreign agent. It does not matter whether you are a NGO, a Media, a journalist or just an individual. If you raise a dissenting voice, the foreign agent label is always there to silence you. 

Alongside with changes in legislation on foreign agents the Duma touched upon another topic – education. On 18 November 2020 a group of Duma deputies introduced a bill proposing to define educational activities in the Federal Law On Education in the Russian Federation. The bill aims to protect students from “foreign propaganda” intended to “discredit Russian state policy, revise history and disrupt constitutional order” in schools and universities. The bill authorizes the government to regulate and control educational activities, which are defined extremely broadly. The Russian Academy of Sciences wrote an open letter to the President asking not to sign the bill. An on-line petition on was signed by more than 200 000 people. However, on 5 April 2020 the law was signed by the President. 

As you can see these laws have much in common. Their real aim is to harass any dissent and discussion of pressing issues and problems in civil society. These laws make toxic any link to, any interaction with a “foreign agent”. 

Our colleagues have already faced refusals from history teachers to participate in their projects, because the teachers were scared of possible repercussions which might endanger or even put an end to their professional career. 

A story promising success…

Nevertheless, I would like to conclude with a success story. Or rather a story promising success. I am referring to the complicated history of a law on domestic violence. Russia has not ratified the Istanbul Convention and has not enacted a law specifically targeting domestic violence. For a long time, domestic violence had been persecuted under the Criminal Code as battery punishable by fine or restriction of liberty. In 2016 Russia decriminalized non-aggravated battery. Criminal penalties were retained only for aggravated battery and the battery of close relatives. In February 2017 Russia amended the Criminal Code once again and removed the provision regarding assaulting close relatives from the article on non-aggravated battery. As a result, violence committed against family members has been made an administrative offense. If a person commits a second battery within a year, he will face criminal prosecution under Article 116.1. 

In 2019 the bill on domestic violence was discussed in the Duma with involvement of experts: CSOs and lawyers. It was actively promoted by a member of the Duma Oksana Pushkina. The petition on has reached around 900 000 signatures. However, the bill has still not been adopted. It is not the first attempt to adopt the law: in 1993 and between 2012 and 2016 other attempts took place but to no avail. 

Meanwhile, good news came from an unexpected direction – the highest courts of Russia. On 7 April 2021 the Supreme Court of Russia introduced a bill to the State Duma proposing to oblige police to investigate domestic violence complaints. Currently the victim has to collect all the evidence and prove the guilt of the offender by herself or himself which is burdensome and, as the Supreme Court notes, is not entirely compatible with international obligations of Russia to protect life and keep people safe from torture and inhumane treatment. 

On 8 April 2021 the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation adopted a Ruling regarding Article 116.1 unconstitutional as it allows a person to escape criminal persecution in some cases of battery (if a person commits battery three times in a row and has been found guilty under Article 116.1 of the Criminal Code for his second battery, his third battery is again considered under the Code of Administrative offences). The Court obliges the Federal Assembly to change Article 116.1 accordingly. 

What will happen to the bill of the Supreme Court and how the ruling of the Constitutional Court will be implemented remains to be seen. 

Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash