The danger of “business as usual” with Moscow

Human rights researcher Tanya Lokshina tells how she was blackmailed over her pregnancy.

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

Russian opposition supporters shout during a rally in central Moscow on 5 December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored reports on egregious rights abused in Chechnya and Ingushetia and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Georgia in the summer of 2008. Lokshina runs a column for the Russian current affairs website Polit.Ru. She is recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as Civic Accomplishment.

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Shimon Peres dies: President Obama leads tributes to Israel's former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner

World leaders rushed to pay tribute to the former Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, president and Nobel Prize winner has died aged 93.

Peres, who served as prime minister twice and later became Israel's ninth president, suffered a stroke two weeks ago and has been seriously ill at a hospital near Tel Aviv since. His condition had improved before a sudden deterioration on Tuesday led to his death.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role negotiating the Oslo Peace Accords a year earlier, which talked of an independent Palestinian state. 

His son Chemi led the tributes to his father — praising his seven decades of public service and describing him as "one of the founding fathers of the state of Israel" who "worked tirelessly" for it.

World leaders rushed to honour his memory with President Obama calling him "the essence of Israel itself".

"Perhaps because he had seen Israel surmount overwhelming odds, Shimon never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel's neighbours," Obama wrote.

Britain’s chief rabbi Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis bid farewell in an emotional statement: "There will be countless tributes to Shimon Peres over the coming days, but I fear that few, if any, will adequately capture the palpable sense of collective grief felt across the world, nor do justice to the memory of a true giant amongst men," he said.

"It is true that Shimon Peres was a great statesman. He was the noblest of soldiers, a born leader, a uniquely talented diplomat, an inspiring speaker and a relentless campaigner."

The former US president Bill Clinton called Peres a "genius with a big heart" and said he would never forget “how happy” Peres was in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. 

"The Middle East has lost a fervent advocate for peace and reconciliation and for a future where all the children of Abraham build a better tomorrow together," he said.

"And Hillary and I have lost a true and treasured friend.”

Peres’s former political opponent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in his statement: “Along with all the citizens of Israel, the entire Jewish people and many others around the world, I bow my head in memory of our beloved Shimon Peres, who was treasured by the nation.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "even in the most difficult hours, he remained an optimist about the prospects for reconciliation and peace".

French president Francois Hollande said "Israel has lost one of its most illustrious statesmen, and peace has lost one of its most ardent defenders"

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and Indian PM Narendra Modi have also paid tribute.

Among the world leaders expected to attend his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday are President Obama, Prince Charles and Pope Francis.