Repression Worsening as Putin Returns Russia to Dark Period in its History

May 7, 2013

(Photo Credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images).
(Photo Credit: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images).

In collaboration with special guest Svetlana Reiter, a Russian journalist who has been reporting on the demonstrations.

A year ago, on the eve of President Putin’s inauguration, the world watched demonstrators prepare to rally in Bolotnaya Square and wondered if the Snow Revolution born during Russia’s “winter of discontent” would bring about real changes in the Russian government‘s approach to human rights and civil society.

Change has come, but not the changes the protesters desired.

In response to calls for openness, transparency, and freedom of expression, the Russian government clamped down hard on dissent. From beating protesters  to banning demonstrations, to requiring non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to wear a “foreign agent” scarlet letter, to restricting freedom of speech in the name of national security, President Putin and his siloviki cronies are creating a culture of fear and repression with assistance from a mostly-compliant Duma.

Journalist Svetlana Reiter has watched the Russian government’s crackdown culminate in the arrest of Bolotnaya square protesters – in many cases on very thin evidence. And Amnesty International has chronicled the gradual erosion in Russia’s respect for basic human rights over the past decade.

Amnesty International has released a timeline on the anniversary of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration chronicling the increasing threat to freedom of expression in Russia.

We are speaking out because Moscow’s dark turn towards repression has ramifications that extend beyond the borders of Russia. The country’s human rights defenders, civil society activists and those who want to report the facts deserve the support of world leaders.

Russia’s most recent and determined retreat from glasnost can be traced back to the reportedly flawed 2011 parliamentary elections. Protests against reported electoral fraud and corruption began in December 2011, quickly spreading to 99 cities, with more than 5,000 demonstrators arrested.

Concerned citizens began to carry white balloons and wear white ribbons to symbolize their movement, and the Snow Revolution was born. The upsurge of civil society activism illustrated that many Russian citizens pay close attention to their government, are willing to show their displeasure at its performance and value the right to elect their representatives.

Protests continued into 2012, culminating with the Bolotnaya Square rally on May 6, 2012. While organizers planned for 5,000 people, tens of thousands turned out to protest the election results and inauguration of President Putin. Reiter reported that as the marchers began moving toward the square, “contrary to initial agreements with the organizers,” demonstrators were met by powerful cordons. They were being ‘pushed’ into a narrow strip of the roadway on the waterfront, where a crowd of tens of thousands are physically unable to fit.” Once protesters broke through a police line, officers began to make arrests.

Police detained between 400 and 650 people in connection with the events at Bolotnaya square.

Approximately 26 persons were charged; 15 are still in detention (including one who has been convicted). There are strong grounds to believe that at least three of the detainees, Vladimir Akimenkov, Mikhail Kosenko and Artiom Saviolovmay be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

The Bolotnaya square crackdown marked a turning point for the “Snow Revolution” demonstrators and human rights activists. After May, the situation deteriorated as Russian authorities introduced onerous new restrictions on public protests, and set exceptionally high penalties for failing to comply with the rules, including fines of up to U.S. $9,600.00. President Putin’s re-criminalization of defamation has further stifled free speech, in violation of the Russian Federation’s own Constitution.

The situation is grave. Russian and foreign journalists work in precarious situations. NGOs receiving foreign funding face crippling administrative burdens and new obligations to register as “foreign agents.” The offices of several humans rights groups have been raided, some have been vandalized.

Rights are being squelched inside Russia, but the repercussions are far-ranging. Russia is no ordinary state. It is a member of the G-8, a global power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The country should be a defender of staunch compliance with international human rights norms, not a routine violator. World leaders need to repudiate the emerging Russian authoritarianism.

In the late 1980s, the world welcomed Russia’s glasnost in the hope that reforms would allow open discussions of political and social issues, criticism of officials, and greater access to information.

President Putin’s government is rapidly returning Russia to a dark period in its history when only one, “official” outlook on the world was acceptable and those who expressed dissenting views could be persecuted; a wholesale retreat from its international obligations to uphold human rights norms and, indeed, its own Constitution. Those speaking out in Russia against this trend deserve our support.