Putin's war on civil society

In the run-up to Russia's presidential elections, the Kremlin continues to undermine democratic inst

“An election is more than what happens on election day,” goes the expression - and it seems particularly apposite to Russia in the lead up to the presidential elections on 2 March. In the past eight years the government of president Vladimir Putin has weakened, almost beyond recognition, most of the essential elements that underpin a healthy democracy.

All Russia's major democratic institutions remain in place, but they have been largely emptied of real capacity to serve as a check on the Kremlin's power. The news media have been neutered: independent TV and radio have been all but destroyed and the independent press severely curtailed. The parliamentary opposition in the Duma has been marginalized. Direct election of regional governors has been abolished. The independence of the judiciary has, through various means, been seriously compromised.

All this has been prominently reported in the international media. Less well known is the extent to which the Kremlin has deliberately gone about stifling another essential pillar of a vibrant and successful democracy: independent nongovernmental organisations.

In a report published this week, Human Rights Watch documents how Putin’s government has in recent years sharply turned the screw on Russia’s vibrant civil society that emerged from the glasnost era. The report, Choking on Bureaucracy, tells the depressing but familiar story of an authoritarian government using a combination of red tape and arbitrary intimidation to curtail the efforts of grassroots social activists to build a better society.

The main tool has been a 2006 law that gives the government agencies broad authority to regulate the activities of non-governmental organizations. It has used this law – and other measures such as the amended 2002 “anti-extremism law” – to silence or effectively paralyze critical voices. Particular targets of the Kremlin are those NGOs which work on controversial issues such as human rights, those working in sensitive regions such as the North Caucasus, those that receive foreign funding, and those which seek to galvanize legitimate public dissent.

The 2006 law grants state officials wide powers to interfere in the setting up and operations of all NGOs. The authorities can reject applications for registration on the pettiest of grounds. The law imposes onerous reporting requirements and allows officials to conduct regular and intrusive inspections, which have been used to harass NGOs. Both can tie down an organisation in weeks or months of paperwork.

In its attack on civil society, the government has not needed to resort to such blunt tactics as mass closings of NGOs or overt censorship. More subtly, though just as effectively and chillingly, it has drowned them in paperwork and bureaucracy, while maintaining veneer of legality. NGOs are free to challenge the warnings and directives which result from inspections, but only at a huge cost to their substantive work.

One example: throughout much of 2007 the Information Center of the NGO Council, a group that provides daily bulletins on the situation in Chechnya and Ingushetia, was threatened with dissolution by the tax service for being improperly registered and failing to pay back taxes. The organization is challenging a fine for the equivalent of US$ 20,000 imposed by the tax service.

The Kremlin has justified the NGO law on the grounds that it must monitor foreign funding of Russian NGOs. This is something the Kremlin has regarded with great suspicion since the so called ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia when public uprisings peacefully overturned pro-Moscow governments. Moscow believes those uprisings were spearheaded by foreign funded NGOs.

The Russian government, like any other, has the right to regulate NGOs. But it also has a duty to ensure that any restrictions on NGOs are compatible with Russia’s obligations under international human rights laws that protect freedom of expression and association.

As the Human Rights Watch’s report demonstrates quite clearly, the 2006 NGO law and other restrictive measures used against NGOs by the Russian authorities are in violation of international human rights standards and hinder the effective exercise of basic civil and political rights.

The 2 March election may be a foregone conclusion. But there is a longer term, and those seeking to salvage Russian democracy should start by challenging the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs and speaking up for the rights of Russia’s courageous and vibrant civil society.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times