Since she was elected to the parliament of the Russian region of Kursk five years ago, Olga Li has been a major challenge to local authorities. Among other things, she has been instrumental in bringing charges of corruption against several leading local officials. She has publicly spoken out on dwindling economic opportunities in the important industrial region. The newspaper where she serves as editor, Narodni Zhurnalist, keeps up a steady drumbeat of criticism, and she seems able to bring hundreds of supporters onto the streets to support her political campaigning. Ms. Li even issued a widely viewed YouTube appeal to President Vladimir Putin, in which she claimed state institutions were being run like “criminal enterprises,” blamed the Kremlin for being “indifferent to the fate of millions” of increasingly impoverished citizens, and questioned the annexation of Crimea.
She insists that her constituents elected her to do just that. And she hopes they will elect her to the State Duma in Moscow, Russia’s national legislature, as an independent in upcoming September elections – a path open to her thanks to reforms made in the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections. “As a local deputy my possibilities are quite limited,” she told the Monitor in a telephone interview. “As a Duma deputy, I’d have a lot more chances to influence things.”
But local and Kremlin powerbrokers look like they’re trying to prevent that by using new “ethical standards” for elected officials. Across the county local legislatures are tightening “ethical codes” designed to curb the speech of elected representatives and candidates for office, and to make any “rude criticism” of authority a punishable offense. And Li’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I have been accused of ‘undermining the foundations of the state,’ just for raising some blunt questions,” Li says. “There is a clear attempt to pressure me to stop criticizing authorities. But I will not be silent. I strongly believe that there should be a framework of political discourse in which such criticism is acceptable. Otherwise, why say anything at all?”