Foundation Inostrannyi Agent – Human Rights Initiative for the former USSR

Projects of the Foundation

Russia

Over the past decade, Russia has found itself politically in a downward spiral. Although it seemingly emerged as a strong nation from the almost ten crisis years under Boris Yeltsin, the country is in fact more corrupt than ever before and the power of the old group of oligarchs has basically been replaced by that of a new group that is closely connected to Vladimir Putin and his entourage. Many of them if not most are directly or indirectly related to the KGB, which makes people regularly refer to Russia as a “KGB country”. The difference between rich and poor continues to grow and life outside the big “show case cities” is harsh and ruled by survivalism. Alcoholism, substance abuse and apathy are immense problems that paralyze the country.

Increased tension

The reign of Vladimir Putin, which seems to have at least another eleven years’ lifespan ahead, has led to increased tension within society, and a clampdown on non-governmental activity. The policy is a gradual one, every time slicing a bit off the salami and then pretending nothing serious happened, but it has now reached the point that civil society is under direct attack. During last year a number of legislations have been passed that restrict the right for public gatherings, freedom of speech on the Internet and LGBT-community rights and that obstruct the functioning of nonprofit organizations. Participants in opposition meetings are being heavily fined; nonprofit organizations across the country are being submitted to the public prosecutor’s investigations; bloggers are being accused of criminal activities; theatric performances suspected of “homosexual propaganda” are being cancelled, art exhibitions are being closed and “extremist” books are being withdrawn from sales.

At the same time, we are observing a tendency to return to the Soviet practice of political repression. For example, members of the opposition and civil society activists, who are used to being accused of “extremism”, are now also routinely being accused of criminal activities (slander, offering resistance to police, economic crimes and even racket). A number of political activists have been put in psychiatric clinics, criminal cases get fabricated and drugs are often planted. The persecution of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT)-community is taking on massive proportions; gay teachers are fired because of their sexual orientation, and an increasing number of LGBT-activists are subjected to criminal investigation.

Return to Soviet times?

Russian civil society has so far been able to survive the attack on its rights. Nevertheless, its future is seriously threatened by the growing repression.

Nonprofit organizations function less effectively because they have to use time and resources on their own protection. Many are cut off from the financing sources of international charity funds. More and more political activists end up in prisons and prison camps. Political trials discourage people from participating in the opposition’s activities. As a result of the Pussy Riot trial and the closure of several art exhibitions, free art has practically been forced underground, just as it was in the Soviet era.

Civil society has not yet been able to reform sufficiently to effectively resist these acts of repression. The main reason is the lack of coordination between nonprofit organizations, political organizations of the opposition and other active participants in the protest movement. While focused specialization used to be the strong point of nonprofit organization and helped them to concentrate on solving specific problems, it has now become their Achilles’ heel. Public advocacy campaigns are uncoordinated; there is no single system for informing the public of the authorities’ repressive actions; victims of repression are defended by ad hoc committees that have to be formed from scratch every time.

The lack of communications between Moscow and the provinces forms an even bigger problem. In a heavily centralized country as Russia, defense of civil society activists in the provinces can only be successful if it provokes a response in Moscow. But it is very difficult for activists in the provinces to attract Moscow’s mass-media’s and nonprofit organizations’ attention to their case. It is even more difficult to convey comprehensive and exact information to human rights organizations abroad.

Considering the above, it is clear that an integral support system for human rights activists and civil society needs to be developed. In a way it is a return to Soviet times, except for the fact that the world and the possible means of communication have changed fundamentally over the past twenty years and that old support mechanisms need to be adapted to the new reality. The Soviet Union was a rather uniform and closed society, and developing support in Western Europe was relatively easy as a result of the Cold War atmosphere. Now, the close economic ties between Russia and the rest of the world and the economic crisis make it much more difficult to develop support and to find the necessary financial means to implement the necessary activities.

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