New research forthcoming in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Politics

In the article, we examine authorities’ use of the law to diminish their opponents’ ability and willingness to challenge the state, a process known as ‘legal repression’. Legal repression offers several advantages to autocrats seeking to weaken dissent, when compared to the use of coercion. Domestically, legal repression maintains the appearance of legality, bolsters the legitimacy of the regime, and avoids the backlash mobilization that can follow instances of the overt use of force. Brutal repression may lead to criticism both at home and from the international community and international human rights organizations, jeopardizing the state’s reputation abroad. In some cases, the use of force may lead to sanctions against the state, or risk the loss of membership to international organizations. Legal repression is often a gradual process which garners less international attention and attracts less criticism.  

Given these advantages, legal repression has been widely used in contemporary authoritarian regimes and non-democracies, and has been studied in states such as Turkey, India, Bahrain, and Singapore. Existing research has investigated the ways in which laws are used for repressive ends in such regimes, and advanced our understanding of the conditions that make legal repression more likely in these settings. To a lesser extent, scholars have also explored the consequences of legal repression, focusing on its impact on protest, activists, and civil society.  

In our article we discuss how, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the law has been used to exercise political power vis-à-vis the opposition, resulting in ‘rule by law’ as opposed to the ‘rule of law’. Since the early 2000s, the Russian authorities have used legislative channels to adopt and refine laws aimed at hindering protest and inhibiting the development of an independent civil society. The discussion of the Russian case contributes to comparative research on legal repression and authoritarian politics. First, it offers important insights into the direct and indirect consequences of legal repression on dissent, civil society, and public opinion. For example, the use of a legal mechanism to label certain organizations as ‘Foreign Agents’ in Russia has created significant administrative and financial obstacles for those organizations, but has also stigmatized their work by indicating that they operate in the interests of foreign powers.  

Second, the study of Russia illustrates how institutional capture facilitates the adoption of repressive laws. As the evidence suggests, there has been little opposition to the adoption of repressive legislation in Russia, thanks to the ruling party’s dominance of the national and regional parliaments, the co-optation of parliamentary opposition, and, to some extent, Putin’s own soaring popularity. The consolidation of political power in the Kremlin also incentivized subnational authorities to oversee the implementation of restrictive legislation in their localities. 

Finally, the Russian case advances our understanding of the dynamic nature of legal repression, showcasing how domestic and external events may drive variation in its intensity. Thus, for example, repressive laws in Russia were introduced in response to events such as the Colour Revolutions; the 2011-12 protests ‘For  Fair Elections’; and most recently, following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The article concludes by identifying fruitful avenues for future work on legal repression in Russia and beyond.   

Tertytchnaya, Katerina; Tiratsoo, Madeleine. (2023). Legal Repression in Russia. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Oxford University Press.