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Foreign Policy: Russia goes back to 'Soviet future'

Publication time: 6 December 2012, 15:16

Foreign Policy magazine reported in an article "Back to the (Soviet) Future" on the construction of neocommunist society in Russia. The magazine writes in particular:

"While today's Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union, it is certainly moving in that direction. In fact, during the first seven months of Putin's new presidency, the echo of the old times has become alarmingly strong.

 

In 20 years of on-the-ground human rights monitoring in post-Soviet Russia, Human Rights Watch has not seen a political crackdown as sweeping as the one we are witnessing today. The crackdown was foreshadowed in the lead-up to Putin's May 7 presidential inauguration, when authorities in some cities repeatedly used beatings, threats from state officials, arbitrary lawsuits and detention, and other forms of harassment to intimidate political and civic activists and interfere with news outlets that are critical of the government.

 

State-controlled media, including pro-government websites, did their best to discredit the Kremlin's critics by subjecting them to venomous and often depraved smear campaigns.   

 

The Kremlin tightened the screws as soon as Putin returned to power, possibly in response to the humiliation and threat posed by the growing protest movement. The government, it seems aspires to go back to the end of 2007, when Putin was finishing his second presidential term and the Kremlin utterly dominated public and political life.

 

Parliament has proven to be a particularly useful tool in Putin's campaign to reinstate strong authoritarian rule. Since May, it has rammed through a raft of laws that set out broad new restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and provide powerful mechanisms for putting pressure on civil society activists.

 

One such piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the "foreign agents law," requires non-governmental advocacy organizations that accept foreign funding to register with the Justice Ministry and identify themselves publicly as "foreign agents," which of course demonizes them in the public eye as foreign spies.

 

Groups are expected to register voluntarily and can have their work suspended or be taken to court if they don't. If an NGO refuses to register, the head of the organization may face criminal sanctions and go to prison for up to two years.

 

Meanwhile, if the institution registers as a "foreign agent," the organization must deliver biannual reports on its activities and carry out an annual financial audit. It must also publicize details about the "agent" receiving the funds and the "principal" who's providing them in a manner that sends a clear message: If you accept foreign funds, your donors are your master.

 

It's not for fear of more cumbersome bureaucracy that leading human rights groups are refusing to embrace these requirements. It's a matter of principle. As they work in the interests of Russian citizens and represent Russian civil society, they simply cannot register as something they clearly are not.

 

Groups that work on controversial issues and do not receive adequate domestic funding are now forced to make an intolerable choice: face criminal sanctions, debase themselves as "foreign agents," or severely reduce their work.

 

Since the law came into force on Nov. 21, most prominent human rights defenders in the country -- including Ludmilla Alexeeva and MHG -- have asserted that their groups will not brand themselves "foreign agents," no matter the consequences. So far, these actions have not provoked an official response. 

 

The foreign agents law also appears designed to make human rights defenders reconsider a standard aspect of human rights work anywhere: seeking improvements through advocacy. That's especially true if the foreign agents law is coupled with another dramatic legal novelty -- the new law on treason, which conveniently came into force one week before the NGO legislation.

 

The country's newly expanded definition of treason now includes "providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization ... directed at harming Russia's security".

 

The overly broad and vague definition seems deliberately designed to make activists think twice before doing international human rights advocacy -- and to make lay people think twice before approaching international human rights organizations.

 

In Russia's current political climate, there is little doubt that the authorities' threshold for interpreting what "harming Russia's security" means will be quite low. Those charged with treason face a prison sentence of 12 to 20 years.

 

When it introduced the treason law as a draft, the Federal Security Service (FSB, the KGB's successor) issued an explanatory memorandum that justified the amendments by referring to the "active use by foreign secret services" of foreign organizations -- governmental and non-governmental -- to harm Russia's security. The FSB contends that "claims about a possible twist of spy mania in connection with the law's passage are ungrounded and based exclusively on emotions".

 

At the same time, law enforcement and security services will clearly be able to use the law to justify close surveillance of activists and non-governmental groups in the name of an inquiry, or to open a criminal case for alleged treason as a way of paralyzing a critic or political adversary. 

 

The issues could be deemed sensitive from the perspective of national security since they pertain, for example, to abuses by law enforcement and security agencies during counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus.

 

True, it's not yet clear how, or whether, the treason law will be enforced. But that may be beside the point. Belarus, after all, adopted a very similar treason law last year and has to use it against anyone. But the legislation hangs like a sword of Damocles over human rights activists whom the government continues to hound using other tools.

 

In Russia, the effects of the new political atmosphere are clear and highly damaging. Several weeks before the treason law officially took effect, for instance, the European Union organized an academic conference in Brussels. Human Rights Watch has learned that a prominent social scientist from one of Russia's regions planned to present a paper there, only to receive a phone call a few days before departure from the rector at his university, who candidly explained that the social scientist should not be traveling to the event if she valued her job or wanted to travel abroad again.

 

Soon, the professor learned that a colleague from another university also decided to skip the conference under similar circumstances. In both cases, the rectors referred to "high-profile warnings" from Moscow and a "tense political climate."

 

Later, when the foreign agents law came into force on Nov. 21, activists from the human rights groups Memorial and Russia's Movement for Human Rights came to work  to discover that  "Foreign agents! Love USA!" had been spray-painted on the walls of their office buildings".


Department of Monitoring
Kavkaz Center



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