8 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
In a sign the Russian authorities continue to seek for some kind of political stability, even if there were eventually to be a change of leader, a law granting immunity to former Russian presidents came into force on 2 January 2021. At the same time there were clear signs of the costs to society and human rights of the kind of political stability presently conceived.
For example, it was reported that Yevgeny Chupov, who fled Russia in 2019 fearing prosecution for his political activities, had received refugee status in Bulgaria. All he had apparently done was support an opposition politician as a candidate in the 2019 municipal elections. In another case, Human Rights in Ukraine reported that Valentin Vyhivsky, a Ukrainian citizen serving an 11-year sentence for alleged spying thousands of miles from his home, had allegedly been held incommunicado for eight months and subjected to torture. An even darker side of this ‘stability’ was reported by the independent media outlet Caucasian Knot which noted that travel schedules of FSB operatives published by Bellingcat in the course of their investigation into the attack on Aleksei Navalny raised questions about possible links between FSB operatives and the deaths of human rights defenders and activists in the North Caucasus. Meanwhile, in a week that saw the return of drunk tanks to Russia, Oleg Zykov, director of the Institute of National Narcological Health, pointed out that the use of police in health-related functions was a negative phenomenon – and of course one with deep roots in the Soviet era.
More and more that Soviet era seems to be holding a mirror up to the contemporary Russian Federation. This week, anniversaries of three significant dates deserve noting. On 5 January 1930 the CPSU Central Committee issued a decree that marked a turning point in the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture. On 5 January 1972 the brief trial of Vladimir Bukovsky took place in Moscow sentencing Bukovsky to a total of seven years’ imprisonment followed by five years in internal exile. And on 8 January 1977 a series of three metro bombings shook the capital that, as Andrei Sakharov suggested at the time in a public statement, might have been a ‘provocation’ by the security organs.
Today in Russia there is a marked contrast between immunity, not to say impunity, at the top, and extreme vulnerability of the rest of the population. Some fall victim to the worst abuses of the criminal justice system; some seek refuge outside the country. At the same time, a general concern grows that the security organs are acting outside the law. Even the increase in everyday police powers should be a matter for disquiet in a country where, on the part of officialdom at least, there seems little interest in promoting a true understanding of the past, or indeed celebrating the country’s real heroes – those who had the extraordinary courage to stand up for what was right in the most difficult circumstances and to speak out on the most difficult issues.