Last Year Was the Worst for Russia's Human Rights in its Post-Soviet History
Last year was an abysmal one for Russia's human rights. It was near impossible to not be aware of feminist punk group Pussy Riot making morning TV awkward for news readers and thrusting their country's human rights crisis into the spotlight during 2012, but a new report from New York-based Human Rights Watch confirmed that it was the worst year in Russia's post-Soviet history for people who don't like having their rights violated by the powers that be. So pretty much everyone.
The year began on a hopeful note after Vladimir Putin's controversial victory in the 2011 elections sparked outrage and helped to raise interest in civic activism in the country. According to Elena Panfilova, Director General of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Russia, "That fact triggered a pretty nervous reaction from authorities, who don’t really like being controlled by society.” As a result, suppressing public dissent became the Kremlin's top priority in 2012, cementing their already cuddly reputation with a torrent of awful new legislature and violence against activists.
In May – on the eve of Putin’s inauguration as president – demonstrations in Moscow erupted into violence between police and protesters. Two days later, Russian authorities had detained over 1,000 people, many for simply wearing the protest movement’s symbolic white ribbons.
To avoid repeat occurrences, parliament quickly passed a series of laws designed to tighten the screws on activists in Russia. Legislation monitoring the internet, increasing libel fines and making libel and defamation criminal offences all followed. Fines for unsanctioned protests increased 30-fold, essentially putting them on par with fines for criminal offences.
“Legally, the space for civic activism has shrunk”, Panfilova explained, “and, of course, that has created an additional need for us to think how to operate in this environment without compromising the safety of those who are involved with us. Sometimes legal safety and sometimes even physical safety.”
These fears certainly don’t seem unfounded. In a throwback to his days as a KGB officer, Putin resorted to intimidation tactics to silence his more prominent critics. In June, the deputy chief editor of a famously anti-government national newspaper reported that he was taken to a forest in the outskirts of Moscow and threatened with his life. Two months earlier, a female reporter from the same paper was attacked and beaten by two men in what authorities played off as a common mugging.
In January, Umar Saidmagomedov, a local lawyer who worked closely with human rights activists, was shot and killed by police in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. While police officials maintained that they were fired upon first, Saidmagomedov’s colleagues believe that he was killed in retaliation for his work. Numerous other human rights defenders were threatened, beaten and killed throughout the year.
And then came the Pussy Riot case, where three members of the group were sentenced to two years in a prison camp for their anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s main cathedral. The message behind the sentence was clear: dissent has its limits in Putin’s Russia.
The Kremlin continued to flex its authoritarian muscles in July by mounting pressure on activist groups and NGOs. Russian lawmakers approved harsh new rules for election monitors, human rights groups and other politically active organisations, requiring them to register as “foreign agents” before seeking international funding. For whatever reason, Putin clearly doesn't like his people being happy.
Critics argued that these new laws were less about regulation than a way to demonise activist groups as "foreign spies: in the public eye, effectively turning human rights work into a treasonous act. According to Panfilova, the new rules managed to alienate her organisation, despite it not even being registered as a “foreign agent”.
“After this law was adopted, we suddenly encountered a problem where those guys in local, city and regional organisations who were very good partners of ours started to decline our calls because they're in public offices and don’t know how to react. Maybe it’s bad for their career to hang around with foreign agents, even though we're nothing of the sort.”
Other groups encountered more hostile reactions. Just one day after the new regulations came into effect, the Moscow headquarters of two influential NGOs were vandalised. Meanwhile, state-controlled media was busy running articles designed to undermine and discredit the protest movement and government critics.
Last year also saw a new wave of homophobic legislation return to Russia. By the end of 2012, a law banning “homosexual propaganda”, which activists fear will severely limit access to information about gay rights, was already in effect across nine Russian regions and is currently working its way through parliament as a proposed federal law that would echo the Stalin-era ban on homosexuality. So it's quite literally working towards taking a step 50 years back into the past.
To cap off its calamitous year, the government set its sights on that most troublesome, notorious factor of anti-government groups: orphaned children. In retaliation to a new US measure blacklisting any Russian deemed to be a human rights violator, Russia’s parliament passed legislation blocking prospective American parents from adopting Russian orphans.
While Parliament claimed that this was aimed at protecting children’s rights, it was clear to many that the Kremlin was using vulnerable orphans as a political bargaining chip. Despite widespread international criticisms, Putin signed the bill into law just before the New Year.
Unfortunately, 2013 doesn’t look much brighter for Russia. In October, the Russian parliament voted to strip a major opposition leader of his seat and, in November, Putin filled the national human rights council with pro-Kremlin appointees. Now that criticism from both within the parliament and outside has become more diluted than ever, it seems Putin's Russia is destined for another year of atrocious treatment and ever-worsening human rights conditions.
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