Moscow on Friday broadened legislation against incitement to separatism, a move which analysts say is aimed at muzzling critics of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The law outlawing public calls threatening Russia’s territorial integrity previously applied to news media.
But they will now cover ordinary bloggers, after the Russian parliament’s lower house approved amendments that would see all public incitement to separatism penalized.
Violation of the law through the media or the Internet will now be punishable by up to five years in prison. Calls to separatism made without the use of the media or the Internet are punishable by four years in prison.
Analysts say the new measure could be used against people expressing private opinions online, especially those who openly disagree with President Vladimir Putin’s decision to absorb the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
After a popular uprising ousted Moscow-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February, Putin sent troops to Crimea, saying he needed to protect Russian speakers on the peninsula.
After a majority of the Crimean population voted to split from Ukraine, Putin signed off on legislation to annex the region.
Since then the phrase “Krymnash” (Crimea is ours) has become a catchphrase on the Internet and is widely used by Putin’s critics to deride his policies and supporters.
“I believe this law is aimed at those who doubt that Crimea is ours,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova centre in Moscow, a non-governmental group.
“We do not have separatism, I see no other application for this law.”
Political analyst Alexei Makarkin said that the law could also target Crimean Tatars, a 300,000-strong minority that largely boycotted the March referendum.
“Now calls to return Crimea to Ukraine will be criminally punished,” added Makarkin.
Crimea was part of Russia before 1954. Putin has said he righted the historic wrong by bringing the peninsula back under Moscow’s control.