Life in Time of Authoritarianism: the State of Civil Society in Russia

Evgeny Belyakov

Vladimir_Putins_interview_about_Olympics_in_Sochi_2014-01-17_10In February 2014, when the world’s attention was locked on the flamboyant closing ceremony of the most expensive Olympic Games in history, other, very different events were taking place in the same part of the world. The several months long and relatively peaceful standoff on the Kyiv’s Independence Square, often simply referred to as Maidan, had been coming to a very tragic and violent closure. The day before the official closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, several Ukrainian athletes announced that they are pulling out due to the violent clashes at home and out of solidarity with the protesters. As the world leant about the true scale of tragedy on Maidan – by the morning of February 21, dozens were reportedly shot dead after 2 days of violence in the Kyiv downtown – both Russia and Ukraine entered a new era, very different from the one that was finishing. The unprecedented scale of violence in Ukraine and the following Russian interference marked the end of the so-called post-Soviet period marked by relative peace between the largest republics of the former socialist mega-state and ushering in a new reality in the region which we are yet to fully comprehend.

The next day after the massacre in Kyiv, Russian state media, which comprise the lion’s share of national media space, started bombarding the viewers with hundreds of reports warning of the rise of “Nazism in Ukraine”. While certain presence of the far right during the Maidan protests is undeniable, the coverage of the scale and the role of the far right in the Kyiv events was not simply overblown by the Russian state media – they would make claims that were simply fake and literally air invented footage. These reports were countless: for example, Russian state media would show videos of unidentified people who claimed they are refugees from the East of Ukraine. The overall estimate of such refugees, according to Russian official media, totaled 675,000 by the end of February of last year. While we now know that during the peak of the military conflict in summer of 2014, several months after those claims were made, thousands of Ukrainians indeed crossed the border of Russia escaping the military conflict in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, there was nothing like this happening in the beginning of March. The numbers were not confirmed by any independent sources and it remains a mystery where they came from. However, these reports of alleged mass exodus from East Ukraine back in March helped create fear among some part of the population of East and South Ukraine who were constantly being told by the ubiquitous Russian media that the “Kyiv Nazis are coming after you”.

“Preventing the Maidan Scenario”

Vilification of the protesters in Ukraine had immediate consequences for the Russian domestic politics.  In the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, in one of his televised speeches Vladimir Putin referred to the “fifth column” and “national traitors” who, according to him, were trying to destroy Russia from within with help of foreign governments. Multiple TV hosts and pro-government activists hopped on the bandwagon suggesting that Putin implied Russian opposition and the Russian human rights activists who pose a threat to Russian national security and who would like to repeat “the Maidan scenario” in Moscow.

The Russian parliament followed the lead. The Duma has already long been ironically branded by the Kremlin’s critics of as “the mad printer” due to its constant output of new oppressive legislation. But in 2014 the MPs reached new, previously unattainable, horizons of Orwellian lawmaking.

Internet, which up until just several years ago remained a domain of freedom in Russia, is now under the thorough attention of the Russian lawmakers. In June 2014, they approved jail term of up to 5 years for “calls to extremism” online. The definition of the term “extremism” in Russian legal tradition has become so vague and unclear that any information which questions the righteousness or the good intentions of the political establishment can be regarded as extremist. So far, several people have been harassed for alleged online extremism, but most internet users preferred to self-censor their web activities and to think twice before posting anything on their blogs or social networks.

New draconian rules were also introduced for those who would like to express their views freely not only online, but in the streets. Another remarkable Russian legal tradition has been upgraded so as to fit the needs of the government: participation in so-called “unauthorized demonstrations” more than twice over a period of 180 days is now punishable by large fines and even prison term up to 5 years. The notion of “unauthorized demonstrations” was invented by the Russian authorities in the mid of 2000s, when first small groups of critically minded citizens made it to the streets. Despite the Russian Constitution being very liberal on the issue of freedom of assembly, the authorities interpreted the Constitution and the relevant laws in a very peculiar way, making a largely symbolical gesture of notifying the municipality about the upcoming public demonstration into a compulsory bureaucratic procedure. A formality which exists in many countries has mutated in Russia over the last 10 years into an onerous confrontment where your chances of getting what the authorities call “permission to hold an action” are very grim. In view of this, very often Russian protesters would not wait until the so-called permission is granted by the authorities but rather simply go out and reclaim their Constitutional right to “assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets”. Such events would often be dispersed by the police. However, it was in 2014 when for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, you can get imprisoned in Russia simply for taking part in a peaceful public action of any type. If the police detain you for participation in “unauthorized” events twice over half a year, you might end up spending 5 years in jail. The authors of this new draconian legislation openly stated that these measures are necessary to avoid the repetition of Ukrainian-style protests in Russia.

The MPs have also not missed the opportunity to show their stamina on the ideological front. In April 2014, the Russian parliament revived a bill criminalizing the “rehabilitation of Nazism”. After the bill was signed into law by Putin, the “rehabilitation of Nazism” became punishable by a fine of up to $8,000 or three years in jail. While similar legislations regulating the limits of freedom of speech regarding WWII memory also exist in some other European countries, this one, just like other repressive legislation in Russia, is employing a very vague language. For instance, apart from criminalizing the denial of facts established by the Nurnberg tribunal in 1945, the new piece of legislation also introduced jail terms for “spreading knowingly fraudulent information about the activities of the USSR during the WWII”. Given the readiness of Russian politicians to constantly re-examine history and to enshrine their historical revelations into the officially approved history books, there are widespread fears that now even professional historians might be under fire for simply mentioning war crimes and other atrocities committed by the Stalin’s regime during the war.

NGOs under Siege

Throughout last year, independent websites were blocked under bogus pretexts, independent journalists kept leaving their jobs (or sometimes even the countries) and very few remaining media outlets were pressured in many ways so that they had to operate in permanent fear and uncertainty. But there are two particular pieces of legislation which in my view have inflicted the most significant structural damage to the Russian civil society. These are the laws targeting “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations”.

The first one was originally adopted back in 2012 after Putin’s return to power. The law required that any NGOs which receive funding from abroad and which are engaged in a “political activity” should register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice. In the view of authorities, this term – foreign agent – is a neutral one and it simply means that this organization is acting on behalf of foreign actors.  Once the organization registers itself as a “foreign agent”, it can go on but it will be subject to additional and quite burdensome bureaucratic scrutiny of its activities. It does not come as a surprise that all the major human rights NGOs refused to follow the new rules. Not so much because of the additional amount of paperwork that they would have to do annually to report on their activities to the authorities, but simply because they do not represent any foreign actors even if they receive foreign funding. And most importantly, the very term “foreign agent” undoubtedly has an explicitly negative meaning in Russia, rhetorically equating the NGOs with spies.

The legal battles between the officials on all levels and the human rights community have been raging up until June 2014. Multiple NGOs and their directors were subject to administrative fines for failing to comply with the legislation. To make matters worse, in June of last year the legislation was amended. Now the Ministry of Justice can forcibly enlist the NGOs as “agents” without a need to prove anything in the courts. As of now, almost 70 NGOs, working in human rights, environment protection and even science, have been put on this list. Many simply chose to shut down just to avoid this shameful label.

Regardless of how destructive the “foreign agents” law turned out to be for the civil society, a new, more far-fetched legislation has been adopted just recently. It is referred to as the law on “undesirable organizations”. The Russian Parliament hastily passed this new bill in May this year and it has already been signed by Vladimir Putin. Even though the term “undesirable organization” might not sound as sinister as a “foreign agent“, the potential consequences of it are even more destructive. The new law gives extraordinary power to the Prosecutor general who can announce any foreign or international organization as “undesirable”. De facto, that would mean that any organizations, commercial or non-commercial, which Prosecutor General believes to threaten “state security”, “national defense”, or the “constitutional order” of the Russian Federation will be banned. Moreover, the legislation introduces administrative fines for Russian citizens who “participate in activities of undesirable organizations”. As it is often the case, the Orwellian law does not elaborate what the definition “participation in the activities” means. Can you re-twit the news by the “undesirable” organization? Can you exchange emails with anyone from this organization? Can you even talk to anyone from such organization? Most probably, we will know only when the relevant law enforcement bodies will start implementing the law. And if the citizen will not voluntarily stop “participating in the activities” of the “undesirable organization” and breaches the law twice over half a year, she or he will face six years in prison.

One MP has already asked the Prosecutor General to ban Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Carnegie Foundation and Transparency International. Following the example of their colleagues, two MPs from the Communist party asked to recognize the Open Society foundations as “undesirable”. So far the Prosecutor’s list is empty, but there is little doubt some large international human rights organizations and foundations will soon find themselves in the blacklist of the Russian government, and Russian citizens will be legally banned or simply scared away from any cooperation with international human rights mechanism upon penalty of imprisonment.

As we have already learnt, many of the legislation which appear to be highly repressive in their wording do not end up being actually enforced very often. The notorious “gay propaganda” law, for instance, was in fact used very few times since its adoption in July 2013. But these are indirect consequences which hurt the civil society the most. Just like with the law on “gay propaganda”, the recent legislation on “undesirables” will force millions of Russians into the symbolical closet by sowing more seeds of fear and self-censorship in the society.

Prispevek je bil prvotno objavljen v 20. številki Razpotij (poletje 2015).