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Feeling the wrath of Putin in Russia from the Northwest

A December 2011 demonstration in Moscow Credit: Maxim Trudolubov/Flickr

In the last few weeks, disturbing reports of harassment of Russian NGOs by the Russian government have alarmed civil society activists. Numbers vary, but as many as 5,000 organizations may have been targeted, including Memorial, one of the country’s oldest human rights organizations, and the Moscow office of Amnesty International.

Natalya Taubina of the Moscow-based human rights organization, Public Verdict, reports that in some cases authorities "may just ask for a few documents; in other cases they may request an exhaustive list, essentially comprising all of the work of the NGO.  This contributes to a sense of randomness, harassment and uncertainty for all of us.” 

This latest step in what has been a steady drumbeat restricting Russia’s civic space is part of a scare campaign to hinder NGO contact with international partners and a payback by the Kremlin for a year of unrest and opposition that spilled into the streets.  In December 2011, Russian parliamentary elections were held and widely perceived to be deeply flawed.

Those elections had come on the heels of an extraordinary announcement by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that he and President Dmitry Medvedev had planned all along to switch roles and allow Putin to run again for Russia’s presidency.  For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Russians in huge numbers took to the streets to protest and express frustration with the corruption and political cynicism of the Putin machine.  Hundreds of thousands of Russians made their voices heard in a series of rallies from that winter through spring, culminating in a massive rally the day before President Putin’s new term began on May 7, 2012. 

Putin’s crackdown has come within the context of unprecedented anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric. In January 2013, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky law. The late lawyer Sergei Magnitsky’s abuse and ultimate death in prison galvanized support for concrete measures that would bar Russian officials from obtaining visas and holding assets in the U.S. The Magnitsky bill was explicitly linked with Russia’s graduation from the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied favorable trading status to the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until it gave its citizens the right to emigrate.

Washington state’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson championed that law, taking on a reluctant Nixon White House. Jackson was a believer in human rights and a staunch friend of Israel; he deplored the plight of Soviet Jews and other religious minorities in the USSR.  Nearly 500,000 Jews, Catholics, and minority Christians left for the U.S. as a direct result of that groundbreaking law, which was the first to inject the concept of human rights into American foreign policy. An estimated one million more Jews left the USSR for Israel.

Tens of thousands of former Soviet citizens settled in the greater Seattle region and more in the Northwest. Those who came in the 1970s and 1980s link their freedom directly to Sen. Jackson and the role he played in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Recognizing the symbolic heft of Jackson-Vanik and its continuing leverage in U.S.-Russian relations, Congress and the White House earlier this year therefore weighed in on Russia’s treatment of its citizens with the passage of the Magnitsky law.  The Kremlin reacted predictably, slamming the U.S. and enacting measures — most notoriously, a ban on American adoption of Russian children — meant to punish America for interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.

Russia watchers have been waiting for the Kremlin to respond. Not long after Putin resumed the presidency, the other shoes began to drop, restricting freedom of speech, assembly, and association. In June, there was a new law against unlawful protests; in July, a measure to make defamation a felony and an internet law that allowed the blocking and blacklisting of certain websites; a pending measure that criminalizes public outreach about homosexuality; and in November, two harsh laws. The first law requries that any NGO involved in political activity that accepts money from foreign sources must register as a “foreign agent.” The second law expands the definition of treason to encompass practically any communication between Russian citizens and foreign individuals or entities. The NGOs most at risk are human rights organizations and election-watch groups like Golos, targeted by the Kremlin for their perceived role in political opposition and suspect because they have Western support.

How is the NGO sector reacting? It is human rights and politically oriented organizations that will feel the brunt of both the ban on Western funding and the targeted harassment and legal threats. Russian democracy activist Yuri Dzhibladze observed: “Many non-human rights NGOs hope they will not be affected by the new laws; human rights groups know they will be.” They are consulting among themselves as to what the sector most needs, including physical as well as cyber security, legal aid, travel support, as well as dollars. 

The Western private philanthropic sector, in turn, has been in a “wait and see” mode. It is imperative that private aid not exacerbate the plight of the civil society sector; at the same time, it should not retreat in the face of Russia’s anti-Western backlash. While there are those in the West who are hoping that this slide toward a more restrictive and controlled civil sector is just a passing trend, Russian democracy activists consider this the new normal. It is critical that we not abandon Russian citizens striving for democracy and an open society at this juncture in post-Soviet history. 

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