Russian human rights advocate Lev Ponomarev (left) and Moscow Helsinki Group president Lyudmila Alexeyeva (right) Human rights advocates wait for the start of the Golos (Voice) trial in a Moscow courthouse, on April 25, 2013.

Conference reports Harder times for the Russian opposition

The situation for human rights in Russia is worsening. Some now even compare the country with Belarus. Opponents of the Putin regime met on a conference ”Russia – a more repressive Kremlin” in Vilnius in the end of May 2013.

Published on on June 3, 2013

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The situation for human rights in Russia is worsening. Some now even compare the country with Belarus. Opponents of the Putin regime met on a conference in Vilnius in the end of May 2013.

The conference had the discouraging topic ”Russia – a more repressive Kremlin”. David Kramer, the president of Freedom House in Washington which was one of the organizers, opened the conference with harsh words:

”President Putin is overseeing the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.”

One of the key speakers was Lilia Shibanova, the head of the NGO Golos which last year was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Golos is the only election monitoring organisation active in Russia which is independent of the Russian government.

Golos is partly funded by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy and is thereby considered a ”foreign agent” according to a new Russian law. By refusing to accept this label the organization last month was fined 300 000 rubles and Lilia Shibanova was fined an additional 100 000 rubles.

”We knew that Putin’s return as president would put more pressure on us. But we didn´t expect this pool of laws that were introduced to make our work more difficult. We are no foreign agents! We just fight for our rights as free citizens.”

So far 44 NGOs in Russia have been labeled ”foreign agents”. Ten more will be called to court for lack of documents, reported Dmitri Kolbasin of the human rights organization Agora. Foreign NGOs have also faced problems supporting human rights in Russia. Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, told the audience that he has been rejected entry to Russia for the last four years and that many of his colleagues are in the same situation.

”We have to find ways to help from the outside. Recently 26 human rights organizations in Europe wrote to the Norwegian Nobel Committee urging them to award the peace prize to one of the Russian human rights activists. Such a prize would be of great significance.”

A topic that was raised by many during the conference was the Magnitsky Act, a law enacted by the US congress last fall to punish Russian officials regarded as responsible for the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The law refuses them entry to the United States. Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison after investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials. Russia reacted very strongly against the law which ”poisons our relationship with the United States”, as president Putin put it.

David Kramer of Freedom House underlined, however, that among ordinary Russians the opinion of the law was quite different:

”44 percent of the Russians support the Magnitsky Act, only 22 percent are against the law. It is very interesting and encouraging that so many support something that the government so vehemently opposes. So what happens next in the Magnitsky case is up to the Russians to decide, not us.”

Many proponents of human rights within Russia are hoping that EU countries will follow suit, and adopt something similar to the Magnitsky Act. If one country in the Schengen area prohibits these Russian officials entry, the effect will be that they can´t enter any country in the Schengen area, according to David Kramer of Freedom House, since the area has eliminated all border controls. The Netherlands have come the furthest in discussions of adopting such a law, but so far no country has taken the step.

EU has had major difficulties speaking with one voice with Russia, underlined several speakers at the conference. National economic interests have made many of them cautious. Lately, however, Germany´s chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed concerns about the deteriorating situation for human rights in Russia. But few concrete steps will be taken, feared Susan Stewart from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

”Big and influential German companies protest against any actions that might hurt their business relations in Russia. And the German leaders listen to what they say, especially in this difficult economic situation in Europe.”

On  June 3 and 4, it is time for the biannual EU-Russia summit, to be held in Yekaterinburg. Political and economic relations will be discussed. The representatives of the opposition who gathered in Vilnius last week came up with a set of  recommendations that they are sending to the EU leaders.

Before any deal on deepening economic cooperation can be struck, several changes in Russian policy on human rights must be made, according to the demands. The organizations are for example demanding that the government scraps new legislation such as the Law on Foreign Agents and the Law on Mass Events. Furthermore they demand the stop of persecution of NGOs and the right for media to work independently. A detailed description of the demands can be found here: ……..

The fact is that such demands have been put forward before, with very meager results. Russia doesn´t seem to listen. Arnoldas Pranckevičius, advisor to the president of the European parliament, described deep frustration in contacts with Moscow.

”We have had 17 rounds of EU-Russia negotiations over the last five years and they are not going well. There is a huge lack of trust in both directions. We see Russia getting more authoritarian, cracking down on NGOs and the opposition. It is very worrying.”

He compared with the EU-Ukrainian relationship:

”We have gotten unlimited access to the imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, we will soon meet her for the tenth time. But the Russians would never let us meet with the jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.”

Susan Stewart from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs underlined that despite lack of success, the EU has to keep up the pressure on Russia.

”Russia has signed several Council of Europe conventions on Human Rights. We should never give up, demanding them live up to these conventions.”

The researcher Andras Racz from the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs concluded that Russia for the moment has no interest in making deals with the EU as a whole. Moscow gains from bilateral deals which can focus on the economic interests of both parties.

”But this can change”, he told me during a break. ”If the price of oil goes down and if the United States continue to produce more oil and gas, then Russia will have a greater need to reach a free trade agreement with the EU.”

During the very week that the conference was held, Russian authorities were about to close the Moscow office of Transparency International (TI) since the organization refused to register as foreign agent. TI therefore had to be represented in Vilnius by Neringa Michevičiutė from the office in Lithuania:

”It is a sad day when we have to state that TI Russia is on trial. They have been questioned by prosecutors and documents have been confiscated.”

This happens at a time when the organization´s work in Russia is more important than ever, stated Neringa Michevičiutė.

”Our colleagues in Moscow are reporting that the perception of corruption is increasing year by year. It is now record high; in the world ranking Russia is surrounded by African countries. But while these countries are going in the right direction, Russia is just falling down in the ranking.”

Corruption has been a major problem in Russia for a very long time, also during the Soviet era and during the tumultuous years after the breakup of the Soviet union.

”Under the Medvedev years we saw changes to the better, new laws were adopted to fight corruption”, says Neringa Michevičiutė in an interview afterwards. “But now everything has changed to the worse again.”

The moderator Liudas Jurkonis from Ernst & Young showed the results from a survey that the firm conducted last fall in 36 countries concerning corruption. 100 employees in Russia were interviewed, among them many managers. 82 percent answered that “corrupt practices happen widely in business in our country”, a higher percentage than in neighboring Eastern Europe and much higher than the average of 57 percent .

Last spring the support of the Russian opposition was growing. More people took to the streets to protest against Putin´s authoritarian regime. One of the protesters, the student Anastasia Rybachenko, was arrested for ten days and risked an eight year sentence for “rioting”. She was kicked out of her university and had to flee the country.

“Eventually I got into the Tallinn Technical University. I have sponsors helping me pay the tuition but I don´t want to disclose their names. If I come back to Russia I will be arrested. I have become a refugee.”

She is still representing the Solidarity Movement (Solidarnost) but is now concentrating on her studies. It was thanks to a letter of recommendation from one of the founders of Solidarnost – the former chess player Garry Kasparov – that she got into the university in Tallinn.

The human rights situation has worsened to such a degree that activists now compare Russia with Belarus.

“There are definitely similarities”, said Bjørn Engesland while David Kramer said that ”one can argue that it is even worse in Russia.” In the audience I met Anna Gerasimova of the Belarusian Human Rights House which operates from Vilnius:

”Listening to these people make me think that I am attending a conference on Belarus. Russia is heading in the same direction as Belarus. OK, Russia has some free media which we don´t, but it´s more dangerous to be a journalist in Russia than in Belarus. In comparison to our population we have more political prisoners than Russia, with our 11 prisoners as opposed to around 50 political prisoners in Russia. But the difference is not huge.”

Journalists present at the conference reported on growing censorship in Russia. Mikhail Sokolov of Radio Free Europe mentioned a couple of examples. He described how a columnist was asked not to use the word “regime” when writing about the present government. When he refused, he got fired. And during the ongoing trial of Aleksei Navalny, the world famous opposition blogger, the police seized 100 000 copies of a newspaper criticising the government.

“Thanks to the internet, those who are looking for independent and balanced journalism can always get it in Russia. The problem is that the majority of the people receive their information from national and regional television. And there the information is neither independent nor balanced.”

Even the few publications, TV and radio stations that can work freely without censorship have problems. After pressure from the government, some companies have withdrawn their commercials which makes survival difficult. The reporter Elena Milashina at Novaya Gazeta told me in a break about several companies, even from abroad, which gave up advertising in her newspaper:

“They are afraid of losing public contracts. The Russian market is too big and too important for them. They can´t afford being left outside. The result is a very difficult economic situation for our paper. Several employees have been laid off.”

She ends on a sad note:

“I am convinced that the days are numbered before the government closes down Novaya Gazeta.”

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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