Every year, the Russian State Duma schedules laws to come into effect on January 1. In 2017, as ever, some of these laws seem poised to make positive contributions to Russian society and some…don't. This year, RuNet Echo marks the highlights and lowlights—from a law that will bring Russian court records online to the introduction of forced labor in some state correctional facilities.
Тhe ‘Google Tax’
Beginning on January 1, certain foreign Internet retail companies will have to start paying a value added tax in Russia. Because the law affects companies that sell electronic books, music, movies, and computer programs, the legislation already has a moniker: the Google tax. Accordingly, Google has increased prices for Google Drive services and Google Play purchases by 18 percent.
Disability and HIV Registries
January 1 also marks the introduction of a federal registry for Russians who have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Russian Ministry of Health says it is introducing the registry to better understand the characteristics—and extent—of the country’s HIV problem: more than 1.5 million people, or more than 1 percent of the Russian population, have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. Earlier this year, Russian authorities announced that the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, is facing an HIV epidemic. More than 1.8 percent of the city’s 1.4 million residents are infected with the virus.
For now, inclusion on the registry is voluntary, though the list will provide the basis for the state’s provision of antiretroviral medication.
Starting on the first of the year, the Russian Pension Fund will also introduce a registry of people with disabilities. Officials hope the registry will help people with disabilities find work and raise awareness about the benefits and programs to which people with disabilities are entitled. Russia has one of the largest gaps between the employment rate among people with disabilities and the employment rate among people without disabilities of any country, according to a recent study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
More than 12 million Russians, or almost 9 percent of the country’s population, live with disabilities, including 620,000 children.
New Rules for News Aggregators
The New Year also brings a new set of rules for news aggregators in Russia. Aggregators whose daily traffic exceeds 1 million views will be considered media outlets in the eyes of the Russian government, forcing them to verify the truth of the news stories they republish—a nearly impossible task that seems to give the government license to crack down on the most popular aggregators in the country, including Yandex, Mail.ru, Google, and Bing. RuNet Echo extensively covered the introduction of this legislation and the government’s pressure (and backpedaling) on Google.
As of the first of the year, Russian courts will be allowed to sentence defendants to forced labor in correctional centers around the country. Four large correctional facilities were scheduled to be opened on January 1—in the Siberian region of Tyumen, the Tambov region (southeast of Moscow), Stavropol Krai (in the North Caucasus), and Primorsky Krai (in the Far East)—in addition to seven smaller facilities across the country. The centers will not have the same degree of security as normal correctional facilities, and inmates will be allowed to leave if they get permission from administrators. They will not, however, be able to choose or change their jobs.
After the law was introduced, Valery Maksimenko, the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service, said that forced labor would compare favorably with other kinds of punishment because convicts would not be isolated from society: “Forced labor in correctional centers, despite the name, can be compared to shift work for people who live in dormitories away from home.”
Maksimenko’s assurance, however, will do little to assuage those who already see echoes of the Gulag in existing forms of labor in Russian penal colonies.
Forced labor was included as a potential sanction in the Russian Criminal Code in 2011, but its introduction has been delayed multiple times since.
Bringing Courts Online
New Year's legislation will also bring Russian courts online—at least some of them. Moscow City and District courts are now accepting statements, appeals, and all other document submissions in electronic form, and court records are now searchable by the name of the individual involved, statute, and a variety of other ways. Only courts with the technical capacity to implement such a digitization will do so, however, meaning the vast majority of Russian courts won’t have websites like the Moscow court system, whose website is already up and running. In all, the Moscow digitization project took two years to implement and develop, and cost $172.4 million, $50 million of which came from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
Increasing the Retirement Age for State Employees
Until the first of the year, the retirement age for Russian civil servants and municipal employees stood at 55 for women and 60 for men. Starting on January 1, the government will incrementally increase the retirement age to 63 for women and 65 for men at a rate of half a year per year (the age will increase until 2032 for women and and until 2026 for men). The government says the initiative is designed to keep qualified government employees in their jobs longer, and to reduce the strain of pensions on the federal budget.
Higher Excise Taxes on Alcohol and Cigarettes
Finally, beginning on the first of the year, Russian drinkers will have to pay higher excise taxes on beer, wine, champagne, cider, medovukha (a mead-like drink), and hard liquor. The excise tax on foreign champagne will increase by 10 rubles to 36 rubles per liter, and on domestic sparkling wine by 1 ruble to 14 rubles per liter. The tax rate on Russian wine will remain the same, while the tax on foreign wine will increase by 9 rubles to 18 rubles. Excise taxes on cigarettes and e-cigarettes will also increase over the next three years.