Simon Cosgrove: A look back at the past week in Russia

6 November 2020

By Simon Cosgrove

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

Two anniversaries fell this week that marked important moments in the Soviet Union’s move away from Stalinism, in the first case, and from Communism, in the second. On 31 October 1961 the body of Joseph Stalin, on Khrushchev’s orders, was removed from the Mausoleum on Red Square where it had lain next to that of Vladimir Lenin and was reburied in the Kremlin wall.  On 6 November 1991 Boris Yeltsin signed a decree banning the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But just how far has the Russian Federation progressed in terms of human rights since the days of the Soviet Union?

A positive event this week was the release of Aleksandr Shabarchin and the suspension of his sentence. Shabarchin is an activist from Perm who had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for a satirical video featuring a mannequin of President Putin in prison garb. Last week Amnesty International had again called for Shabarchin, a prisoner of conscience, to be released and his conviction quashed, along with that of Danil Vasilyev who had been given a suspended sentence for the same act of peaceful dissent. Despite Shabarchin’s release, however, the convictions of both young people remain in force.

The relative leniency of Shabarchin’s treatment contrasts with that of three Crimean Tatars – Rustem Emiruseinov, Arsen Abkhaitov and Eskendir Abulganiyev – who were all sentenced to long terms in prison (ranging from 12 to 17 years) for membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organisation legal in Ukraine but banned in Russia as a terrorist organisation. Hizb ut-Tahrir, as Memorial Human Rights Centre points out, is a peaceful organisation and does not engage in terrorism.

Meanwhile, as Covid-19 continued to ravage Russia, the victims seem to include the transparency of government actions and freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch’s Russia researcher, Damelya Aitkhozhina, pointed out that, ‘As Russia reports record numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths, authorities seem paradoxically concerned with preventing health workers from talking about the crisis, hospital overcrowding, and shortage of personal protective equipment.’ The authorities’ nervousness about freedom of expression was again shown this week by the introduction of a new bill also intended to discourage freedom of expression, to the State Duma by Irina Yarovaya. The bill, that builds on existing legislation against so-called ‘fake news’, provides for an increase in fines – of up to 3m roubles – for organisations that ‘deny facts established by the Nuremberg Tribunal,’ ‘rehabilitate’ Nazism or disseminate ‘fake information’ about the actions of the USSR during World War II.

If in all these cases thowbacks to Soviet attitudes can be detected, the new, post-Soviet Russia can be seen in the country’s uneasy membership of the Council of Europe and its grudging acceptance of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, together with its legal instrument the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (effective in Russia since 1998) which this week marked its 70th anniversary. On 3 November 2020 the European Court of Human Rights handed down two judgments against Russia concerning violations of Articles 6, 8 and 34 of the Convention.

End Note

A country that symbolically turned its back on Joseph Stalin 59 years ago and banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 29 years ago is yet to come to terms with such basic human rights as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, right of association and freedom of conscience, whether this be young people expressing their dislike of current political leaders, Muslims associating in a group to pursue their religious activities, medical staff discussing official measures to combat a pandemic, or individuals and organisations freely talking and writing about Nazism and the role of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War. In these circumstances Russia’s commitment to the Council of Europe and the enforcement, through the European Court of Human Rights, of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms continues to be a vital marker for the protection of human rights in the country.  

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