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Russia's "hooligans" here to stay

The "Arctic 30" Greenpeace protesters may not be in the deep freeze as winter closes in -- they're being moved to a grim St. Petersburg jail pending trial -- but they face as much as seven years in the cooler if convicted on tsarist-era charges of hooliganism.

Some of the 30, including two Canadians, arrested during a protest against Arctic oil drilling, may also face more bizarre and serious charges of piracy. Something even President Vladimir Putin called spurious.

But hooliganism is no free pass in Russia.  In fact, says Brian LaPierre of University of Southern Mississippi, it's a "catch-all" charge used at the pleasure of Russia's rulers since the 19th century.

"It's a foreign word coined from the British penny press," said LaPierre, author of Hooligans in Khrushchev's Russia. "But the interesting thing is it has cultural as well as legal implications. The way it's used can be slippery."

Indeed. Under Joseph Stalin, it was employed to keep down street crime and brawlers could get up to five years in a labour camp.

But in the more "liberal" era of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and early 60s, it encompassed a "well-rounded" set of charges tailored to deal with everything from bad manners -- swearing or spitting in public -- to more violent crimes. It was a threat hanging over workers who deviated from the image of the Ideal Soviet Man.

Since then, says LaPierre, it's become the "go-to instrument for Russian governments who want to get things done and stigmatize a certain social group. That's now political protesters, environmentalists or anyone seen to be outside the cultural mainstream."

That's why charging the 30 with hooliganism might be worse than slapping them with a piracy charge, which has a higher evidence bar and would likely be dismissed in court.

Hooliganism, on the other hand, is what it is. Or whatever the regime of the day says it is.

In Putin's increasingly authoritarian era, it fits with a wider agenda of demonizing civic society organizations as "foreign agents" because many have backing in the West.

Hooliganism is a charge of choice that has been used against a number of dissidents, including political protesters and  members of Pussy Riot who are serving months in labour camps, Stalin-style, for the crime of performing a satirical protest in a Moscow cathedral.

It could also seal the fate of the Greenpeace protesters. "The penalties may be less than piracy but it's easier to convict," says LaPierre.

Meanwhile the thousands of anti-immigrant nationalists who rallied across Russia Monday waving banners that included "Young people against tolerance," got a free pass, and so did their rabble-rousing, hate-mongering leader Alexander Belov. 

A sign of much more chilling times to come.

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002 as a bureau chief and correspondent.


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Thank you Russian for standing up to the green bullies.

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