Russia's use of "extremism" laws to prosecute nonviolent dissent is best known through Pussy Riot's Dance Seen Around The World in Moscow's main Christian Orthodox Cathedral, which yielded some of its participants two-year prison terms.
On August 15, a district court in Moscow issued a verdict against Maxim "The Hatchet" Martsinkevich, perhaps Russia's most famous right-wing "activist" who was found guilty on the charges of extremism (article 282, part 2a) for inciting national hatred and making armed threats. Mr. Martsinkevich will spend the next five years of his life in the harshest penal colonies of Russia.
On the face of it, this sounds like a sound decision in a country where neo-Nazi violence has been a growing problem since the early aughts. But what was the man accused of? Well, Maxim Martsinkevich was found guilty of inciting hatred in three self-made political videos he posted on his Russian social networking page VKontakte. The videos -- which are no doubt supercharged with racial slurs and radical opinions on Russia's state of the union and, for example, its immigration crisis -- are nothing but rants in which the author focuses on various controversial issues: the Moscow mayoral election, the riots in the suburb of Biryulevo, and two movies, "Stalingrad" and "Okolofutbola" (AroundSoccer).
That's it. He did what thousands of people do every day -- post a video of themselves blabbering away on YouTube, sharing their views on some subject with the whole white world.
The trial of The Hatchet was Russia's chance to have a "Skokie"-type moment and uphold free speech even for the most radical of its citizens. Instead, the court's hatched job ended in an extremely harsh sentence, further elevating his status in the underground world of right-wing gangs. The Hatchet is now a martyr, his star keeps rising and his suffering in jail will be perceived as unfair.
The Russian government went to extraordinary lengths to convict Mr. Martsinkevich. He was extradited from Cuba in January 2014. It's also a story of a remarkable fall form grace: The Hatchet's been a media personality and even occasionally appeared in debates on Russia's largely state-owned TV, airing his sugar-coated radical views to an audience of millions -- as opposed to the thousands who follow him on VKontakte.
So why now?
Perhaps the courts are under pressure to strike blows against right-wing groups to further underscore the Kremlin's potent claim that neo-Nazis are in power in the neighboring Ukraine, where the paramilitary group Right Sector was a noticeable force behind the Maidan protests that toppled President Yanukovych and where the right-wing and nationalist Svoboda Party has a sizable following and is represented by 35 parliamentarians (out of 450) in the Verkhovna Rada and three seats in the new Cabinet.
The conflict in Ukraine has had a major impact on Russia's right-wing movements, says the latest survey by the Moscow-based watchdog SOVA Center. As Ukraine went down in flames, the public imprint of Russia's right-wing groups has dwindled while internally they split into two fractions, one vehemently opposed to the new regime in Kyiv and the other supportive of Ukraine's "nationalist revolution."
The fervor with which Ukraine's nationalistic and right-wing tendencies are played up by the Russian government and media is certainly overhyped, but not groundless. While right-wing candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote in the presidential elections, Svoboda will likely better its positions this fall in the Verkhovna Rada elections and is fairly consistently polling above 10 per cent. The conflict in the pro-Russian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk has attracted scores of self-proclaimed neo-Nazis who've joined Kyiv's brigades fighting the separatist forces. Svoboda's electoral base is in West Ukraine, where it received more than 30 percent of the vote in three regions in 2012, while its main ideological opponents come from Luhansk and Donetsk, which in all likelihood will not vote in the upcoming elections, and Crimea, which is de facto no longer part of Ukraine.
Russia's own problem with neo-Nazi violence is well-documented and hard to ignore. Yet to fully take advantage of the "Ukrainian fascism" card, the Kremlin must prop up its war chest at home, which is done in four principal ways: 1) going after, arresting, and prosecuting the most violent groups like "NS/WP Nevograd"; 2) banking on Russia's inheritance as the principle force that defeated Hitler's Nazi Germany -- this heroic theme is running constantly in anything done by the government or state media; 3) allowing zero political space for nationalist groups -- or, for that matter, any other independent opposition groups, from sweet, harmless liberal fans of Ancient Greek democracy to chest-pounding National Bolsheviks; and 4) misusing the country's hate crime and "extremism" laws to go after nonviolent offenders.
I think the case against Maxim Martsinkevich falls in the fourth category, yet the government and most people in Russia believe it falls squarely in the first group. But even after you expose all his ties to violent groups and his involvement in the intrusive and likely illegal "Occupy Pedophilia" stunts, at the end of the day he was still put away for simply voicing his political opinions in online clips. Mr. Martsinkevich is a victim of an unfair process, targeted selectively and sentenced harshly solely on the basis of his reputation.
The Hatchet may be on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the ultra-liberal feminists of Pussy Riot, yet like the women he was silenced for exercising Russia's constitutionally protected right to free speech. His lawyers should follow Pussy Riot's example and sue the Russian government at the European Court.