Russia: Worst Human Rights Climate in Post-Soviet Era

(Moscow) – The Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society in the year since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency that is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.

The 78-page report, “Laws of Attrition: Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency,”describes some of the changes since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012. The authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, begun a nationwide campaign of invasive inspections of nongovernmental organizations, harassed, intimidated, and in a number of cases imprisonedpolitical activists, and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies. The report analyzes the new laws, including the so-called “foreign agents” law, the treason law, and the assembly law, and documents how they have been used.

“The new laws and government harassment are pushing civil society activists to the margins of the law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government crackdown is hurting Russian society and harming Russia’s international standing.”

Many of the new laws and the treatment of civil society violate Russia’s international human rights commitments, Human Rights Watch said.

Several of the new laws seek to limit, or even end, independent advocacy by placing new, draconian limits on association with foreigners and foreign funding. The “foreign agents” law requires organizations that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.”Another law, adopted in December, essentially bans funding emanating from the United States for “political” activity by nongovernmental organizations, and bans groups whose work is “directed against Russia’s interests.” A third law, the treason law, expands the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy.

The report documents the nationwide campaign of intrusive government inspections of the offices of hundreds of organizations, involving officials from the prosecutor’s office, the Justice Ministry, the tax inspectorate, and in some cases the anti-extremism police, health inspectorate, and the fire inspectorate. The inspection campaign, which began in March 2013, was prompted by the “foreign agents” law.

Although many organizations have not received the inspection results, at least two have been cited for failing to register as “foreign agents,” and others have been fined for fire safety violations, air quality violations, and the like, Human Rights Watch said. Inspectors examined the groups’ tax, financial, registration, and other documents. In several cases they demanded to inspect computers or email. In one case, officials demanded that an organization prove that its staff had had been vaccinated for smallpox, and in another the officials asked for chest X-rays of staff to ensure they did not have tuberculosis. In yet another case, officials demanded copies of all speeches made at the group’s recent seminars and conferences.

“The government claims the inspections are routine, but they clearly are not,” said Williamson. “The campaign is unprecedented in its scope and scale, and seems clearly aimed at intimidating and marginalizing civil society groups. This inspection campaign can potentially be used to force some groups to end advocacy work, or to close them down.”

The first organization against which Russian authorities filed administrative charges for failing to register as a “foreign agent” was Golos, the election monitoring group that had documented violations in the 2011 parliamentary vote. A court in Moscow is scheduled to rule on the case on April 25. Golos and its director face maximum fines of 500,000 (approximately US$16,280) and 300,000 rubles (approximately US$9,700), respectively. If the court rules in the ministry’s favor, the organization would either be forced to register as a “foreign agent” or would be further sanctioned under the “foreign agents” law.

The “foreign agents” law does nothing more than demonize groups that already reported to the authorities on foreign funding and their activities, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should immediately withdraw the charges against Golos.

As the laws were being debated and adopted, pro-government media outlets ran propaganda campaigns targeting prominent nongovernmental groups, accusing them of promoting Western interests in exchange for funding.

“The term ‘foreign agent’ is ubiquitously understood in Russia to mean a spy or traitor, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that by adopting this law, Russian authorities sought to discredit and demonize civil society groups that accept foreign funding,” Williamson said.