In Russia, Democracy and Freedom Descend Further into Darkness

Protestors in Moscow in December 2011. The Russian authorities discourage such expressions of freedom of speech through laws and intimidation. Photo: VOA — Yuli Weeks.

In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine. The foundation of European security was shattered by Russia’s armed aggression against our country, its illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as its further military intervention in Donbas. Full-fledged aggression gave rise to the worst security crisis since the end of the Cold War, with Russia positioning itself as a clear threat to global security.

At the same time, Russia’s external aggression is clearly linked with repressions inside the Russian Federation itself. Russia’s violent campaigns at home and abroad support Russia’s goal of suppressing any democratic voice that stands in opposition to its aspirations.

Legal Actions Target Democratic Organizations

Russia’s latest campaign to stifle dissent at home began in 2012 with the passage of Russia’s so-called “Foreign Agent Law.” The law required groups conducting “political activity” (the definition of which is unilaterally decided by the government) and receiving funding from foreign organizations to register as “foreign agents” or risk shutdown by the government. Groups affected include GOLOS, an election watchdog that uncovered massive fraud in 2011’s parliamentary elections, Memorial, a group that worked against Russia’s return to authoritarianism, the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster, and over one hundred other organizations. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission found the legislation highly controversial in its 2014 and 2016 opinions, noting its interference with human rights protected under the European Convention, including freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. The Commission called upon the Russian authorities to revise the NGO legislation to bring it in line with European standards.

Several years later, Russia passed its law on “undesirable foreign organizations,” which gives the government the power to unilaterally declare any foreign organization that it deems a threat to the stability or security of the state “undesirable” and ban it and its activities from the territory of the Russian Federation. Since then, seven foreign organizations that work to support and protect fundamental freedoms in Russia have been banned from working there.

Media Under Threat

In addition to weakening Russia’s civil society, the Russian authorities have significantly reduced space for independent and pluralistic media to operate and strengthened their grip over state-owned media. Independent outlets have been pulled off the air as a result of their editorial content. Other, often largely government-funded outlets have been transformed into powerful instruments of state-driven propaganda rather than risk their longevity to play the traditional and integral role of the media as “the fourth estate” in Russian democracy. Their propaganda manipulates citizens’ anxieties by circulating myths and outright fakes, generating virtual enemies, and inciting jingoistic sentiments and hatred towards other nations, often with a strong focus on Ukrainians. These editorial policies have ultimately led to the severe discrimination against Russian media professionals and outlets in their own country.

The media crackdown extends beyond media outlets themselves and onto the Internet, one of the only means of accessing independent media in Russia. The Russian government has repeatedly blocked and filtered content related to its aggression against Ukraine and anti-government protests in Russia itself. It has forced technology companies including social networks to store data relating to Russian users on Russian soil, thus giving the government potentially unfettered access to their browsing habits. And on January 1, 2017, a law came into force requiring “news aggregators” such as large search engines Google, Bing, and Yandex to register as media outlets, which may force them to alter search results to favor state-sponsored media. The current Russian state-owned and propagandistic media threatens peace, stability and social cohesion beyond the borders of Russia, and props up Russia’s narrative of global importance.

Last summer, Russia adopted the so-called Yarovaya laws, purportedly to bolster counterterrorism and public safety efforts. In reality, these laws expand law enforcement authority and collect private data on citizens, restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and religion and further curtailing the space for civil society, independent media and political opposition.

These laws aim to curtail the work of activists who threaten to uncover Russia’s missteps at home and abroad.

Increasing the Price of Protest

These de jure factors would be enough to keep most people from speaking out against the Russian policy, but through extrajudicial murders and beatings of journalists and activists, Russian authorities have created a distinct climate of fear. Ordinary citizens face pressure for their activity online in addition to the streets; according to the Freedom House 2016 Freedom on the Net report, “the past year saw a dramatic hike in arrests of social media users, with the first maximum five-year sentence issued for so-called extremist expression online,” as well as physical attacks on individuals as a result of their social media posts.

Outside of political repressions, citizens in Russia have also come under close scrutiny for their personal lives. In 2013, Russia enacted a law that banned so-called “gay propaganda,” after which there was a noticeable increase in vigilante attacks against Russian citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation, as noted by Human Rights Watch. Together with the legal restrictions on Russian citizens that are a direct violation of their fundamental freedoms, Russians must worry that any word they say, any action they take might be used against them or their families. Most recently, Russia adopted a law that decriminalizes domestic violence, though thousands of Russian women die each year at the hands of their partners. Before the Russian President signed the law, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe said its passage “would be a clear sign of regression within the Russian Federation and would strike a blow to global efforts to eradicate domestic violence”.

What’s more, Russia intends to escape any culpability for its actions on the world stage. In November 2016, it withdrew as a signatory to the Rome Statute, the governing document of the International Criminal Court, which has famously prosecuted cases of war crimes, genocide, and widespread human rights abuses.

Russia’s crackdown at home and aggression abroad did not simply happen to coincide; these actions are part of a larger campaign to eliminate democratic voices in and outside of its borders. Its aggression at within and outside of its borders, in countries like Ukraine, are one in the same. It is up to the international community to hold Russia accountable and make Russia return to the tenets of international law before it is too late.