What Happens in Moscow Doesn’t Stay in Moscow: Crackdowns on Basic Freedoms in Russia – And Why the U.S. Should Care

June 14, 2013
Russia's crackdown is not just about silencing opponents at the political fringes. It is about stifling all who would question his consolidation of power (Photo Credit: Mikhail Klimentye/AFP/Getty Images).
Russia’s crackdown is not just about silencing opponents at the political fringes. It is about stifling all who would question his consolidation of power (Photo Credit: Mikhail Klimentye/AFP/Getty Images).

Since President Putin’s election, Russian authorities have intensified their assault on basic freedoms and undermined rule of law. The assault takes many forms. New bills restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, criminalize public actions “committed to insult the religious feelings of believers” and outlaw activism by LGBTI individuals and their supporters.

New controls over the media are being used to smear government critics and bolster the government’s policy line. Authorities use secret detention facilities and torture, especially in the North Caucuses region, to silence critics and deny them access to counsel. These measures are widespread and systematic.

This crackdown,should be a matter of grave concern to the United States. Moscow’s lack of respect for human rights speaks volumes about its reliability as a potential partner to the United States and Europe in addressing pressing international security concerns, from the conflict in Syria to the danger of nuclear proliferation.

For some NGOs, the significance of this particular brand of harassment is that it can result in self-censorship, restriction of activities or flight. Already 43 Russian non-governmental organizations in 16 regions are undergoing inspections and investigations, with devastating effect. Our biggest concern is that this is just “round one,” and that forced closures are likely to follow. The NGO law passed late last year provides for sentences of up to 20 years for individuals “providing consultative assistance to a  foreign organization” if that group was involved in “activities aimed against Russia’s security,” a catch-all phrase that could be used to criminalize almost any activity the government deems hostile.

Russia’s crackdown is not just about silencing opponents at the political fringes. It is about stifling all who would question the consolidation of power under President Putin. The Russian government is consolidating control over all key political and economic levers of power in the country.

Though the stifling of dissent is widespread, it is arguably most pronounced in the North Caucuses region, home to violent insurrections against Russian rule for centuries.  Human rights defenders who bravely speak out about the situation in the North Caucuses region are particularly at risk. Heavy-handed security operations have led to human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, secret detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment.

Take for example, Pussy Riot’s one minute long performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The  band members’ were arrested and sentenced and the actions sparked a global outcry and brought Russia’s mounting repression to an international audience.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to political repression in Putin’s Russia. Other critics of the government suffer in obscurity. They are likely to be treated even more harshly than their more famous kindred spirits.

There are no quick fixes to reverse the ever shrinking space for freedom of expression in Russia.  But there are things we can do to deter some of the worst of the abuses and support those inside Russia who are courageously doing their part to advance human rights.

We can continue to shine a spotlight on what is happening and help people understand why they should care. Russia is a great power with enormous potential to help solve the world’s problems. But what happens in Moscow does NOT stay in Moscow. It speaks volumes about Russia’s reliability as a global partner of the United States in every field, from trade to international security.

We must also insist that when President Obama travels to Russia in September, that he put human rights prominently on his summit agenda. The Russian government cares about its reputation, and the United States should not give President Putin a free pass on repression.

Finally, the international community should provide technical support and training for Russia’s civil society sector. They are not today, and must never be “foreign agents.”  But they can be “foreign partners” of the global movement for human rights, and we should not abandon them.