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Russia’s War on Democracy and Human Rights

by Larry Lerner

THE MURDER of opposition leaders is an old weapon of choice for the Kremlin. The blood of exiled former member of the Russian Parliament (the Duma) flowed on the streets of Kiev last month when Denis Voronenkov was assassinated -- by a Russian hitman, according to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Voronenkov had been a member of the Duma before defecting with his wife to the Ukraine. He had offered to testify for the prosecution in a criminal case against the pro-Russian former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Maidan Revolution in 2012. Voronenkov had also agreed to provide evidence on the deliberations and actions of the Kremlin during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. His assassination was only the most recent use of this weapon by the Russian government.

Even more recent is the death by brutal beating of the Russian journalist and Putin critic, Nikolay Andrushchenko, 73-year-old cofounder of the newspaper Novy Petersburg. Andrushchenko had expressed concern about Putin after the latter’s rise to power in 2000, warning that the secret services were taking control of Russia. Arrested in 2007, the journalist claimed he was tortured while in custody. Two years later, a court fined Andrushchenko after finding him guilty of libel and extremism. His recent beating death was, as we have come to expect, perpetrated by unknown assailants.

Another example was the cowardly killing of Jewish opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, when unknown gunmen shot him from behind on the Moscow River Bridge, three hundred feet from the Kremlin. Nemtsov was memorialized by thousands of brave Muscovites, who marched on Sunday, February 26 to commemorate the second anniversary of his assassination. It was the largest opposition gathering since a similar memorial march for Nemtsov the previous year.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 is another example of the use of assassination to silence opponents of the Putin regime. Politkovskaya was an investigative journalist, writer and human rights activist known for her opposition to the Second Chechen War and the policies of Vladimir Putin. She was murdered at the front door to her apartment building in Moscow, and although her killers were eventually convicted (in a retrial, after an initial acquittal), there was never any information disclosed as to who had actually ordered her killing.

Alexander Litvinenko was murdered via the ingestion of radioactive polonium-210, which resulted in his death in London in November 2006. He was a former FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) agent who, in 1998, along with fellow agents, had accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch who had broken with Putin, Berezovsky’s one-time protégé. Litvinenko was arrested, later acquitted and then fled to London, where he worked as a journalist, writer, and consultant to the British intelligence service. He also accused Putin of ordering the assassination of Anna Politkoyskaya, who was killed just weeks before Litvinenko.

What is the fuel that fires a continuing war against all possible opponents of the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin? Several possibilities come to mind. Amid a slide in oil prices, the Russian economy has experienced a dangerous downward drift in a country that spends so much on military preparedness and has little left for the support of its citizens. It is often said that Russia is a Third World country possessing nuclear capability. Or is it the dream of returning to the Soviet Union of old, with its surrounding stable of dominated countries compliant to the will of a Stalin-like figure? Or the fear felt by Putin, rumored to be the richest man in the world, that his fortune is at risk? Certainly Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution would fuel such paranoia and might make Russia’s leader open to killing anyone who would oppose his rule.

RUSSIAN LAW is also used to silence the critics of political discourse, limit the rights and liberties of Russian citizens, and undermine the institutions of civil society.

Adopted in 2012, Russia’s Law on Foreign Agents is one such weapon in the Kremlin’s arsenal. The law requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that conduct political activity and receive funding from abroad to register with the Ministry of Justice as foreign agents. By the end of 2016, the number of NGOs defined as foreign agents reached 155; the list includes the names of prominent human rights groups, environmental groups, and many other entities that perform important services for society. In accordance with an amendment approved by the Russian Parliament in May 2016, “political activity” includes almost any research or advocacy activity that criticizes or challenges the Russian government or its policies. The law is used by Russian authorities to discredit, penalize, or impede the work of NGOs, especially those promoting and protecting human rights, monitoring elections, and fighting for the transparency of government institutions.

The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis is a Moscow-based think tank that was founded in October 2002 with the mission of promoting human rights and liberal democracy through monitoring, research, and advocacy. SOVA Center works on issues such as nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, as well as anti-extremism legislation, religion in a secular society, and political radicalism.

On December 30, 2016, SOVA Center was added to the list of NGOs defined as foreign agents by Russia’s Justice Ministry. In January 2017, the Ministry reported that SOVA Center had neglected to register as a foreign agent, thereby violating Article 19 34 Part 1 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation. In February, the Center was notified that on the 21st of the month, the Basmanniy District (part of Moscow) Court would be considering an administrative case against it. Representatives from both the SOVA Center and the Ministry of Justice were denied entrance to the hearing, in which the court fined the human rights NGO a sum of 300,000 Russian rubles (approximately $5,400) on a charge of neglecting to register as a foreign agent. SOVA Center has appealed this judgment.

When an NGO is accused of breaching the Foreign Agent Law, both it and the individual who heads it are fined heavily, and the head of the organization is also subject to criminal charges, as happened to Valentina Cherevatenko, chair of “Women of the Don,” a regional women's human rights group. Human Rights Watch has recently stated that “For the past four years, the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous. It is part of a sweeping crackdown to silence critical voices that has included new legal restrictions on the internet, on freedom of expression, on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and on other fundamental freedoms.”

Another example of how Russian law is used as a tool to silence dissent was the arrest, trial, and incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in Russia and an opponent of President Putin. Following a trial in 2004-05 that was considered politically motivated, Khodorkovsky was originally given a ten-year sentence; an additional ten years were later tacked on, though his sentence was commuted by Putin in December 2013 following a great outcry from the international community. Following his release, Khodorkovsky immediately left for Switzerland and established a foundation, Open Russia, to promote reform in Russian civil society.

THERE HAVE BEEN some positive signs of late in the fight against the repression of pro-democracy and human rights advocates. On February 21, 2017, Russia's Supreme Court ordered the release of the jailed opposition activist Ildar Dadin, the first Russian to be convicted under controversial anti-protest laws adopted in July 2014. In December 2015, Dadin had been sentenced to two and one-half years in prison under this legislation for repeated protest-related “crimes,” which were committed before the law even came into effect -- in other words, what Americans would call ex post facto legislation, which is prohibited under the U.S. Constitution. The court in February upheld the petition of the Prosecutor General, whose representative had said that Dadin's actions did not constitute a crime and who had recommended that Dadin be released for rehabilitation following the voiding of his sentence.

None of this would have been possible without the strong will of Dadin himself, the commitment of his wife to gaining wide-ranging publicity for his experience, and the tremendous work of Russian human rights defenders. Describing the decision by the Supreme Court, Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a well-known Russian human rights organization, stated: “As a rule, the prosecution does not take the side of the defense lawyer; therefore Dadin's trial has a political meaning, no doubt. The decision to vacate the sentence was probably related to the fact that we (Russians) wanted to make peace with the West.”

Though there have been only a few recent success stories, Dadin's case demonstrates how important and vital is the work of human rights defenders throughout the world, especially in countries where the current government is compromising the rule of law.

Also important were the unauthorized protests that took place in many Russian cities on March 26, 2017. As required by law, organizers in all the cities notified the authorities in advance that mass actions against corruption would take place, but almost none of these protests received authorization. Outraged by the refusal to approve the assemblies, citizens took to the streets to express their point of view, peacefully and arm-in-arm. The protests were brutally dispersed by the police. The largest rallies were in St. Petersburg and Moscow –- approximately 10,000 and 30,000 participants respectively. In total, across Russia, the number of protesters was estimated at 100,000.

Perhaps Putin has a reason to be concerned about the after-effects of Maidan.

Larry Lerner is president of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union (UCSJ).