16 January 2022
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
This week Human Rights Watch published its World Report 2022. The organisation said that during the past year Russian authorities had ‘unleashed a full-fledged witch hunt on civic groups, independent media and journalists, political opposition and other critics in the run-up to the parliamentary election in September 2021.’ If 2021 was an exceptionally difficult year for civil society and human rights in Russia, the last few weeks were particularly devastating. As Tanya Lokshina (HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia) noted in a separate publication: ‘The final days of 2021 were marked by a particularly vicious escalation of Russia’s crackdown on independent reporting and activism.’ This included the court rulings to close down Memorial, new ‘foreign agent’ designations, arrests of political activists and the blocking of the website of OVD-Info. Of these, the judicial attack on Memorial in particular symbolised a watershed in Putin’s domestic policies. In the words of the Council of Europe’s Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić: ‘The liquidation of International Memorial is devastating news for civil society in the Russian Federation. The existence and development of civil society organisations is an essential pillar of any European democracy. However, the Russian Federation appears to be moving further away from our common European standards and values.’
Russia’s move away from European standards and values is also evident in its current foreign policy. Indeed, at the moment it almost seems that the two-headed eagle which features on the Russian coat of arms symbolises a duality of repression at home and aggression abroad. A week that saw the announcement of the impending withdrawal of Russian forces from Kazakhstan saw Russia’s relations with the West continue on their downward slope. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, paradoxically in a manner rather like a disgruntled old style schoolteacher, complained after recent various talks between Russia and Western countries that Russia has ‘run out of patience’ and wants a ‘written response’ to its demands for security guarantees. If it were not such a serious matter, the tone sounds almost too much like the Russian story of the drunk who pesters everyone nearby with the question, ‘Do you respect me?’
One consequence of domestic repression has been the exodus of many ‘dissidents’ from the country. The Moscow Times highlighted a report by the US-based Free Russia Foundation (designated by Russia as an ‘undesirable organization’ in 2019) that more than 1,500 political activists and journalists left Russia in 2021 ‘due to criminal prosecution or political pressure.’ Meduza reported that the members of the Pussy Riot group have now been almost entirely forced out of Russia. The satirist Viktor Shenderovich announced this week that he had left Russia for fear of politically motivated prosecution following his criticism of the ‘Kremlin chef,’ Evgeny Prigozhin. Apart from all other repressive measures, this loss of large numbers of active citizens will have a long-term impact on the strength of civil society in Russia. Meanwhile, leaving the country is no guarantee the Russian authorities will leave you in peace: witness the adding of Navalny associates Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov, both now outside Russia, to the list of ‘extremists and terrorists.’ Furthermore, Ivan Zhdanov’s father, Yury Zhdanov, who had been given a suspended sentence, which itself seems to have been politically motivated in retribution against his son, was returned to detention for allegedly breaching the terms of his sentence. Indeed, the plight of prisoner of conscience Aleksei Navalny (about whom this week CNN Films and HBO Max announced they would be producing a new film) is only the most vivid example of what can happen to those who seek to peacefully and legally oppose the Kremlin on the domestic front.
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that domestic repression has regional variations, and the federal authorities continue to appear to give a free hand to the worst repressions, notably in the Chechen Republic. This week eight Russian and international human rights groups (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Committee Against Torture, Committee «Civic Assistance», Human Rights Centre «Memorial» and Moscow Helsinki Group) issued a joint open letter to President Putin about the abduction in the last week of December 2021 of dozens of relatives of five activists who criticised the leadership of the Chechen Republic. Their fate remains unknown. The signatories called on Putin, the guarantor of human rights under the Russian constitution, to ‘take all necessary steps to stop the ongoing repression in the Chechen Republic, starting by urgently disclosing the fate and whereabouts of all those abducted and ensuring a prompt, full, impartial and effective investigation into the December abductions and other human rights violations committed by the Chechen authorities.’ The letter stated: ‘The Chechen Republic is a subject of the Russian Federation, and the head of it is your subordinate. It is firmly within your remit and obligations to stop actions that Chechen authorities take that violate Russian laws, including the abductions and possible enforced disappearances that took place in December.’
Indeed, one cannot but help feel this is a statement that could be fairly addressed to President Putin with regard to the whole range of repressive measures against civil and human rights in the Russian Federation taking place today