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Моscow City Court to rule on Navalny’s Description of United Russia as Party of “Crooks and Thieves”

18 September 2012  

Source: Open Information News Agency

Blogger Aleksei Navalny, © Photo Georgi Alburov (@alburov).

On Thursday, 20 September at 9:40 am the Court Collegium for Civil Cases of the Moscow City Appeal Court will consider Aleksei Navalny’s appeal against the decision of the Lublin District Court in Moscow.

Navalny has asked for the repeal of the decision by the lower court ordering him to pay 30,000 roubles compensation to the MP Vladimir Svirid for having referred to the United Russia party as the party of “crooks and thieves”. The civic activist further demands that the Moscow City Appeal Court repeal in its entirety the lower court’s ruling in Svirid’s favour. Aleksei Navalny is represented by lawyers Ramil Akhmetgaliev and Damir Gainutdinov of the Agora Human Rights Association.

On 4 June the Lublin District Court in Moscow ruled partly in favour of United Russia member Vladimir Svirid, who had sued Navalny, ordering the blogger to pay him 30,000 roubles in compensation for moral damage and to publicly repudiate information that “does not correspond to the facts” contained in the blogger’s interview with Esquire magazine by posting the court’s decision online.

The human rights lawyers’ appeal points out that the court has unlawfully ruled in favour of an individual whose rights and interests have not been infringed since the law does not forbid the expression of value judgements and opinions and allows criticism of political parties. In addition, they have provided the court with the results of an independent linguistic analysis. The linguistic experts have concluded that the statement, “United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves”, constitutes an emotional generalisation that does not relate to specific individuals or specific events. This statement cannot be classified as anything but an opinion, i.e. an unverifiable judgment based on the speaker’s value system.

Whose rights have been violated?

The text published by Esquire magazine expressed Aleksei Navalny’s views, without ever referring to any specific members of United Russia or to Vladimir Svirid.

Article 152 of the Russian Federation Civil Code states that everyone has the right to demand the refutation only of information directly relating to him or her. The published text referred to the party as a whole, as a legal person. The case as filed, as well as the court documents, show that Vladimir Svirid MP is not authorized to represent United Russia, a party that is defined by its statute as a legal entity. In the interview Navalny did not question the honesty of Svirid himself.

Is it illegal to express value judgements and opinions?

The position of the Russian Federation Supreme Court as well as that of the European Court of Human Rights is unequivocal: individuals can demand only evidence of factual claims but not of personal views (value judgements).

Obliging Aleksei Navalny to refute his own value judgements will de facto force him to repudiate his own opinions, something expressly and directly prohibited by Russia’s Constitution (point 3, Article 29). This prohibition is absolute and does not allow of any exceptions.

Navalny’s lawyers point out that in October 2011 the same judge of the same Lublin District Court in Moscow dismissed Svirid’s charge against Navalny when the latter claimed that “United Russia is a party of corruption, crooks and thieves.” Therefore the court has already acknowledged that Navalny’s words constituted a value judgement.

Is criticism of political parties allowed?

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the freedom of expression and the need to provide convincing evidence in every instance when it is claimed that it should be restricted, stating: “Freedom of expression does not cover only ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are received favourably or are considered inoffensive or neutral, but also information that may offend, shock or raise concern.”

In the legal stance taken by the Strasbourg Court, of all possible targets of criticism – private individuals, corporations, political figures, office holders or political parties – it is the last group that enjoys the least protection.

A political party has to be tolerant of criticism on the part of political opponents, civil activists and ordinary citizens, since such criticism, even of the harshest kind, is an integral part of political discussion without which neither democracy nor free elections are possible.

Consequently, the fact that Vladimir Svirid perceives as offensive certain statements, as well as the fact that he ascribes to his person statements that do not relate to him personally, is not sufficient grounds to convict someone, the human rights lawyers claim. Furthermore, in bringing his case he did not provide any evidence that there was an urgent social need to restrict Aleksei Navalny’s right to his freedom of expression in the context of political discussion, or his right to criticize the activities of political parties.

What did the linguists say?

Elizaveta Koltunova, a member of the Guild of Linguistic Experts on Documentation and Information Disputes, who holds a PhD in Philology, is Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Philology of the N.I. Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod State University and Professor of the International Slavic Academy, with 35 years' working experience, and Timur Radbil, Doctor of Philology and Professor of the Modern Russian Language Department of Nizhny Novgorod State University, who has over 25 years' working experience, carried out research on an ind-depth interview of Aleksei Navalny from the December 2011 edition of Esquire magazine. In it, Navalny speaks, in particular, about his views on the United Russia party.

The experts concluded that the snippet of the interview which provoked a reaction from Deputy Vladimir Svirid “represents the evaluative opinion of A.A. Navalny about the United Russia party” and that “no information relating to Vladimir Averyanovich Svirid was found” in the publication.

“The words ‘In United Russia there are people I like, generally speaking. But if you have joined United Russia, then you are a thief. And if you’re not a thief, then you are definitely a cheat, because your name is protecting other cheats and thieves’ do not relate to citizen Vladimir Averyanovich Svirid. This is an assessment of the political party United Russia,” the linguists noted.

The fragment of the interview that offended Deputy Svirid "was subjected to linguistic analysis in the context of the theory of reference, cognitive linguistics and the speech act theory."

“The given context constitutes A.A. Navalny's thinking; that he views some party members positively (‘I like’), and others negatively (‘I do not care for them’) ... These statements should be considered an emotional generalisation stemming from the speaker’s reaction to a situation he views negatively, or to something someone has done.

Furthermore, the experts note that "such an emotional generalisation is very often encountered in everyday communication, but it is not supposed to be subject to verification."

“In a similar way, remarks like ‘Our team are freaks, they lost to the Greeks’ are made, whereby the speaker clearly is not referring to physical imperfections of our national team’s players and evidently is not referring to specific players. He is expressing a negative emotional reaction to the defeat of the national team," the linguists point out.

The experts write: "The statement in question constitutes a typical negatively-biased qualificative, the true purpose of which is the expression of A.A. Navalny's negative attitude towards the United Russia party". The thrust of his speech can logically be expressed as follows: "With the judgment ‘United Russia is a party of cheats and thieves’, what the speaker actually means to say is something like this: ‘I am critical of the United Russia party because, in my opinion, an indeterminate number of its members may be described as ‘cheats and thieves’.”

“As the name ‘Vladimir Averyanovich Svirid’ is not present in the text,” the Nizhny Novgorod linguists point out, “it is impossible to determine which of the party's members V.A. Svirid is associated with: with those whom A.A. Navalny likes, with those who are denominated as ‘thieves’ and ‘cheats,’ or with those members of party whose ‘name is protecting’ ‘thieves’ and ‘cheats.’ “

Additional Information
Elizaveta Koltunova, a member of the Guild of Linguistic Experts on Documentation and Information Disputes, who holds a PhD in Philology, is Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Philology of the N.I. Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod State University and Professor of the International Slavic Academy, has also conducted linguistic research into investigations carried out by the FSB of the Nizhny Novgorod region, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Russia in the Volga Federal District, the Investigative Committee of Russia for St. Petersburg and Udmurtiya, the Supreme Court of Mordovia, the Nizhny Novgorod and Ryazan regional arbitration courts, the governors of the Nizhny Novgorod and Kostroma regions, and the Government of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District. For example, Koltunova conducted a study into the cases of Primorskie Partisany and Russkaya Volya magazine, and found evidence of extremism in their material.