The legislation, which will become law if signed by President Vladimir Putin, expands the definition of espionage and high treason to encompass "the rendering of financial, material-technical or other assistance to a foreign state, international or other organization or their representatives in the activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation."
The bill was approved by 138 of the 139 lawmakers present in the Federal Council, the parliament's upper house.
The legislation, which was submitted by the Federal Security Service, the successor of the Soviet KGB, offers officials wide room for interpretation and could undercut the development of democracy in Russia, warned Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council of Civic Society and Human Rights.
"If approached literally, the bill creates totally unlimited possibilities of finding high treason in any action," Fedotov said in an interview Wednesday. "If a passerby asks me in a Moscow street for directions to the Kremlin and duly gets them from me and later turns out to be a member of an organization working against our national security, I will automatically become a person guilty of high treason."
Fedotov complained that his council's prior warnings were not heeded by the lawmakers in the Federal Council and the Duma, the lower house of parliament, which previously approved the measure. Now his presidential panel will urge Putin to veto the legislation, which he is widely expected to sign.
The measure follows a chain of recent legislation that curbed the holding of mass rallies, proclaimed foreign-sponsored nongovernmental organizations to be "foreign agents" and revived the charge of slander to apply pressure on mass media.
Andrei Klishas, head of the upper house's committee on constitutional law, legal issues and civic society development, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He wrote in the committee's assessment that "the bill will serve the improvement of criminal law in the sphere of protecting the state secrets from criminal encroachment and will enhance the efficiency of upholding the security of the Russian Federation."
The lawmakers simply agreed to oblige the Federal Security Service and make its work of catching spies easier and more cost-efficient, said Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov.
"Back in the early '90s, after dumping the communist theory for good, we in the new democratic Russia thought that now that we share peace, friendship and chewing gum with the West, no one will try to bring us down anymore," he said in an interview Wednesday. "But we were wrong."
"Our security services are still struggling against numerous spies but often have a hard time bringing them to justice bridled by legal limitations," added Markov, a vice president of the Russian Plekhanov University of Economics. "Up to now, it was easy for the Federal Security Service to catch spies but increasingly difficult to gather enough evidence to implicate them in a crime."
Markov said the bill is not aimed at suppressing the opposition and dissent, because "it makes no sense to accuse them of spy activities unless they are really guilty." But former lawmaker Gennady Gudkov noted that legislators in what he called "the Kremlin's pocket parliament" continue to approve one bill after another in a government strategy to curb the growing protest movement and reduce foreign influence in Russia, a effort he dismissed as shortsighted.
"Now all the citizens of the country become potential targets for charges of espionage and high treason," said Gudkov, a government critic who was recently expelled from parliament for allegedly running a private business while serving as a lawmaker, a charge he denied. "But I have little doubt that the first victims of the new legislation will be my colleagues, leaders of the protest movement, impossible to stop by such absurd initiatives."
The legislation will backfire against its promoters, Gudkov argued, by causing more people to take to the streets in protest.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A protester holds a tablet computer showing the figure 31 during a rally in Moscow on Tuesday in defense of Article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees citizens the right to gather peacefully. Credit: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA