As Brussels prepares for the EU-Russia Summit on December 21, it’s worth recalling a recent UK Foreign Office statement indicating that all was “business as usual” in Russia, with the human rights situation given its perfunctory place. But “business as usual” is the most counterproductive signal that can be sent by an EU member-state to Russia today.
Last December Moscow was not buried in snow as it is now, but was rather drowning in slush. On 5 December a group of activists held a public gathering to protest violations during the parliamentary elections the day before. They had anticipated a turnout of about 500. Instead, as many as 10,000 people showed up, shocking the organizers, the media, and the Kremlin.
That rally proved to be the beginning of massive public demonstrations in Russia’s capital, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest authoritarian rule and political stagnation. Surely, this voice of discontent was so strong the government could not possibly ignore it?
But although some electoral reforms followed early in 2012, the authorities only intensified harassment of their critics in the lead-up to the presidential elections in March and Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in May. They used punitive lawsuits and arbitrary detention, threats from state officials, and beatings to intimidate political and civic activists, and to interfere with independent news outlets. After the inauguration, the parliament pushed through a raft of highly restrictive laws, tightening the screws on freedom of expression, association, and assembly and giving the government ample tools to prosecute peaceful dissent.
Working for the Human Rights Watch Russia Office, I could feel the repression tightening and realized it was unprecedented in contemporary Russian history. Some of the elements — especially the new treason legislation and the heightening anti-foreign hysteria –are frighteningly reminiscent of Soviet times.
Then one morning in September, I started to receive threatening text messages revolving around my advanced pregnancy and my unborn child. I caught myself thinking: “Last year this would have been unthinkable — whoever’s doing this has lost all sense of limitations.”
In Russia a pregnant woman is still viewed as off-limits, and the idea that of threatening an unborn baby would disgust anyone. Still, the new laws and the aggressive rhetoric of the Kremlin apparently signaled to officials at all levels that anything goes when it comes to the campaign against international groups or “foreign agents” (even if they are Russian). As a result, the climate in the country has become so hostile that blackmailing a human rights researcher over her pregnancy is an acceptable addition to the arsenal of tools used to hamper the work of advocacy organisations.
In seven short months, Russia feels like a different country. A new and expanded definition of treason — essentially criminalizing international advocacy -- requires foreign-funded human rights and advocacy groups to register and publicize themselves as “foreign agents” (in Russian this unambiguously is interpreted as “foreign spies”). Two large donors — USAID and UNICEF — have been kicked out. A group of demonstrators face mass riot charges that are, at the very least, disproportionate. And two members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band are serving serious prison sentences for a political stunt following an absurd and unfair trial.
This is not how I want to see Russia. Hopefully, this is not how its international partners want to see it either. But governments that should care about developments in Russia seem to be passively watching the country slide over the abyss of repression. They need to speak up to help end the Kremlin’s onslaught on civil society, making clear that infringing on basic rights in violation of international law has a cost globally. You can’t be a member of the prestigious international clubs without strict adherence to the rules.
Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and deputy director of the Moscow office