18 May 2020
Dmitry Makarov is co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Human rights defenders are concerned that the Kremlin may be using emergency measures introduced to fight the Coronavirus pandemic to justify or even speed up the implementation of authoritarian practices dreamed up long before the onset of COVID-19.
“There are serious concerns that a system for controlling the movement of citizens will remain after the quarantine measures have ended,” said Dmitri Makarov, the co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, in an interview with the publication Foreign Policy. These controls could limit the movement of citizens deemed a threat to public safety, and the subsequent collection of location data could allow government officials to know who has come into contact with whom. “There is also the risk,” he added, “that the data collected will be used to combat dissent or sold to cybercriminals on the black market.”
Makarov also noted that the court and penitentiary systems may use the extraordinary circumstances as an excuse to consolidate power over the civilians under their authority. This has included limiting the ability of prisoners to report unsafe conditions within prisons and penal colonies, as well as changing their place of imprisonment without informing relatives. Prisoners’ rights groups working on human rights in the penitentiary system publish complaints they receive from inside the penal system but have lately been pressured against this by means of new laws against spreading so-called false information about the Coronavirus. The implementation of these new regulations on “fake news,” carrying penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, are especially concerning as they can be used to censor and punish those who challenge official statistics and figures.
Human rights defenders are also concerned about the controversial use, in particular in Moscow, of systems of facial recognition, mobile phone tracking, drones and helicopters to search for violators of the self-isolation regime, and in addition about the fact that law enforcement officers use the situation surrounding the pandemic to violated the rules that govern detaining members of the public.
“The Kremlin would probably like to introduce total control,” Makarov said, “but it isn’t capable of this yet.” And so the Russian government and its people remain in something of a standoff. The former use the Coronavirus pandemic to consolidate power, while the latter are compelled, in order to survive the pandemic, to give increasing powers to authorities that they do not entirely trust.
Human rights defenders concede that protecting health, especially in a pandemic, is a legitimate reason for temporarily restricting some rights. “But the restrictions involved,” Makarov added, “must never be unlimited. The priority should be the safety of citizens, not the convenience of the authorities.”
The above is a translation by Simon Cosgrove of an adapted excerpt by Moscow Helsinki Group from: Josh Nadeau, ‘Putin Is Using the Pandemic to Consolidate Power. Public health is a convenient pretext for extending authoritarian controls,’ Foreign Policy, 18 May 2020. The translation is largely based, with all due acknowledgement, on the original English version published by Foreign Policy. Readers are recommended to visit the original Foreign Policy text.