1 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
This week, rather than opening an investigation into the alleged murder attempt by means of Novichok on Aleksei Navalny, the Russian authorities brought fresh charges against the opposition leader. The charges relate to alleged fraud concerning Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, now closed. In what seems to be currently ‘open season’ on Navalny, the Federal Prison Service announced he had violated the terms of his 2014 suspended prison sentence, Yevgeny Prigozhin said he was still suing Navalny for libel and the Justice Ministry announced Navalny’s Foundation for the Protection of Citizens’ Rights had been added to the ‘foreign agent’ list, while refusing to exclude the Anti-Corruption Foundation (now closed) from it. Meanwhile Navalny’s colleague, Liubov Sobol, a lawyer, and two of her associates were released having served short sentences for administrative offences following their visit to the apartment of Konstantin Kudryavtsev, the FSB officer allegedly involved in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Sobol herself now faces charges of trespassing ‘with the use of violence or a threat to use it.’
Rising concern among the human rights community about the role of the FSB in Russian politics and society was eloquently expressed in a statement authored by Lev Ponomarev, Valery Borshchev and Svetlana Gannushkina who argued that: “The FSB should be eliminated in its present form, and its activities over the entire period of its existence should be studied closely. Russia needs modern, professional, and newly shaped special services that obey the law and are subject to society’s oversight. […] Russia faces a task of unprecedented scale. We must counter State terror with a broad association of people and the broad public support of politicians speaking out for democracy, the supremacy of law, and human rights.”
One of the authors of this statement, Lev Ponomarev, was this week, along with four others, among the first individuals to be designated as ‘foreign agents’ under the existing law on foreign agents in the media. The Ministry of Justice also designated the women’s rights NGO, Nasiliu.net, that combats domestic violence, as a ‘foreign agent’ NGO. Meanwhile, President Putin signed into force a series of laws including one that that enables the authorities to designate individuals and public entitities as ‘foreign agents’ if they engage in political activities considered to be ‘in the interests of a foreign state.’ Other new legislation increases restrictions on protests and online information, including a ban on sharing personal data and information about the work of intelligence officers, law enforcement agencies, the military and judges, no doubt prompted by the recent sophisticated independent investigation that apparently identified FSB officers who might have been complicit in the assassination attempt on Aleksei Navalny.
This week also saw significant anniversaries: of both the founding (on 30 December 1922) and the end (on 26 December 1991) of the Soviet Union; of the beginning of the bloody assault on Grozny by Russian forces (on 31 December 1994); and of the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and the assumption of the duties of the presidency by Vladimir Putin (on 31 December 1999).
The authorities have met calls for an investigation into the attempted assassination of Aleksei Navalny with a veritable barrage of legal cases and administrative measures against the opposition leader and his associates. Far from seeking to find out who poisoned him, the authorities seem to be seeking to deter him from returning home. Against this background, senior human rights defenders have issued an urgent call for the dismantling of the FSB. Meanwhile the repressive ‘foreign agent’ legislation has been used (for the first time) against individuals, including Lev Ponomarev, and more NGOs have been added to the list of ‘foreign agent’ organisations. Not content with this, the authorities have now adopted a whole raft of new restrictive legislation, which includes a further extension of the foreign agent law. The anniversaries marked this week serve to remind us of the historical context of the country’s current politics: the horrors of military conflict, the malleability of human institutions (the creation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and also of the length of the political ascendancy enjoyed by the current holder of Russia’s highest office, Vladimir Putin.