2 January 2021
Simon is chair of Rights in Russia but writes these comments in a personal capacity and they may not necessarily represent the views of the organisation
Last week was dominated by news about the closure of Memorial. This week has passed under the continued threat of Russian military action against Ukraine, and ended with Russian forces in Kazakhstan.
As Russia continued to mass forces on the borders of Ukraine, and in the run-up to international talks. President Biden told President Zelenskiy the US and its allies would ‘respond decisively’ if Russia further invaded Ukraine, while on a visit to Ukraine the EU’s Josep Borrell said Russia would face ‘massive consequences’ if it attacked. Zelenskiy himself expressed defiance. Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, warned the risk of conflict was real and said Russia’s demands to restore past spheres of influence and have Nato strategic weapons withdrawn from near Russia’s borders were unacceptable. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken together with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, emphasized the ‘preference to pursue diplomacy and de-escalation’.
Meanwhile, among the many domestic moves that may be linked to future Russian aggression against Ukraine, President Putin tabled a new bill on Russian citizenship which provides for ‘change of the state border of the Russian Federation’ as grounds to obtain Russian citizenship.
Russia continues to exert pressure against Crimean Tatars and individual Ukrainian citizens. This week Kurtumer Chalgozov, the 23-year-old Crimean Tatar seized by FSB officers on 14 December, claimed he was tortured in an attempt to get him to agree to collaborate with the FSB. UKrainian Roman Tsymbaliuk, the UNIAN correspondent left Russia, fearing for his personal security after being summoned by Moscow prosecutors for allegedly ‘inciting enmity’. The Ukrainian theatre director Yevhen Lavrenchuk who left Russia (where he was director of Moscow’s Polish Theatre) in 2014 in protest against the invasion of Crimea, is being held in detention in Italy at Moscow’s request after being arrested during a stopover in Naples on 17 December on the basis of an arrest warrant for financial fraud issued in Russia in July 2020 – seven years after he had left Russia.
Threats of external agression by Russia go hand in hand with internal repression. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), condemned the move last week by the Russian authorities to bock the website of OVD-Info and called on social media giants Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vkontakte and Telegram to refrain from blocking OVD-Info’s social media accounts. As the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out, Russia is also putting pressure on these internet companies themselves: on 24 December a Russian court fined Google nearly $100 million for failing to remove banned content; local access to Twitter has been slowed for the same reason; and earlier in the year Russian regulators warned journalists and other social media companies not to carry information about anti-government protests. A U.S.-based Russian-language blogger, Felix Glyukman, has said Google is threatening to delete one of his YouTube posts after Russia’s federal censor flagged it as prohibited content (the content supposedly violates Russia’s law against ‘gay propaganda’.) The video, entitled ‘How Did I Realize That I’m Gay?’ was added to Russia’s Internet blacklist by a court in Vladivostok on 26 November 2021.
At the end of the week eight Russian and international human rights organisations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Committee Against Torture, Civic Assistance Committee. Memorial Human Rights Centre, Moscow Helsinki Group) issued a joint address to President Putin condemning the recent abduction of dozens of relatives of five activists who dared criticise the leadership of the Chechen Republic. The fate and whereabouts of many of them remains unknown. The statement says ‘abductions by Chechen authorities who then deny information about the fate and whereabouts of those concerned constitute enforced disappearances and as such amount to a crime under international law and a grave violation of human rights protected under the laws of the Russian Federation and international treaties it has ratified.’ The statement called on President Putin to ‘take all necessary steps to stop the ongoing repression in the Chechen Republic.’
The week ended with the Russian military in action far from Ukraine. Following disturbances in Kazakhstan, Russian troops arrived in that country at the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on 6 January 2022. as part of a force of CSTO ‘peacekeepers’. As RFE/RL pointed out, CSTO troops had ‘stayed out of the 2005, 2010, and 2020 revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, the June 2010 interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in autumn 2020, and did not attempt to intervene or mediate in the brief border fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late April 2021.’ So what has changed? Under Article 4 of the CSTO Charter, the organization will only send troops to help a member state whose territory or sovereignty is threatened by an external force. There has been much speculation as to what role the primarily Russian force would play in Kazakhstan and how long it would stay.