Back to the (Soviet) Future
Dear Vladimir Putin, I'm a human rights activist, not a spy.
"So, let them put me in jail. I’m not afraid at all. I won’t last more than a few days, and frankly at my age I’m likely to die before they manage to throw me behind the bars," 85-year-old Ludmilla Alexeeva told me nonchalantly in November. Widely referred to as the grandma of the Russian human rights movement, she leads the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), the oldest active civil society organization in Russia, founded along with several other Soviet dissenters back in the 1970s.
"I lived in a real totalitarian state and that was scary," she said. "But now the country is different, people are different — you just cannot compare. Back in 1976, MHG was the only independent group in the USSR. Now things just aren’t the same."
Things sure aren’t the same, but Alexeeva seems be faced with the very same dilemma she confronted all those decades ago: stop your work or pay a high price. During the Soviet period, she was fortunate enough to be offered exile as an alternative to imprisonment (she lived in the United States for almost 20 years before returning to Moscow after the fall of the USSR). Now she counts herself lucky because her old age won’t allow for prolonged imprisonment.
While today’s Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union, it is certainly moving in that direction. In fact, during the first seven months of Vladimir Putin’s new presidency, the echo of the old times has become alarmingly strong. So strong, in fact, that the most prominent human rights defender in the country is seriously contemplating the prospect of soon landing in jail. This is especially poignant since just a year ago, when mass public protests erupted in Moscow following the December parliamentary vote, Alexeeva and other human rights defenders were rejoicing about the awakening of Russian society and hoping for positive change.
Such hopes were apparently premature. In 20 years of on-the-ground human rights monitoring in post-Soviet Russia, Human Rights Watch has not seen a political crackdown as sweeping as the one we are witnessing today. The crackdown was foreshadowed in the lead-up to Putin’s May 7 presidential inauguration, when authorities in some cities repeatedly used beatings, threats from state officials, arbitrary lawsuits and detention, and other forms of harassment to intimidate political and civic activists and interfere with news outlets that are critical of the government. State-controlled media, including pro-government websites, did their best to discredit the Kremlin’s critics by subjecting them to venomous and often depraved smear campaigns.
The Kremlin tightened the screws as soon as Putin returned to power, possibly in response to the humiliation and threat posed by the growing protest movement. The government, it seems aspires to go back to the end of 2007, when Putin was finishing his second presidential term and the Kremlin utterly dominated public and political life.
Parliament has proven to be a particularly useful tool in Putin’s campaign to reinstate strong authoritarian rule. Since May, it has rammed through a raft of laws that set out broad new restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, and provide powerful mechanisms for putting pressure on civil society activists. One such piece of legislation, commonly referred to as the "foreign agents law," requires non-governmental advocacy organizations that accept foreign funding to register with the Justice Ministry and identify themselves publicly as "foreign agents," which of course demonizes them in the public eye as foreign spies. Groups are expected to register voluntarily and can have their work suspended or be taken to court if they don’t. If an NGO refuses to register, the head of the organization may face criminal sanctions and go to prison for up to two years. Meanwhile, if the institution registers as a "foreign agent," the organization must deliver biannual reports on its activities and carry out an annual financial audit. It must also publicize details about the "agent" receiving the funds and the "principal" who’s providing them in a manner that sends a clear message: If you accept foreign funds, your donors are your master.
It’s not for fear of more cumbersome bureaucracy that leading human rights groups are refusing to embrace these requirements. It’s a matter of principle. As they work in the interests of Russian citizens and represent Russian civil society, they simply cannot register as something they clearly are not. Groups that work on controversial issues and do not receive adequate domestic funding are now forced to make an intolerable choice: face criminal sanctions, debase themselves as "foreign agents," or severely reduce their work. Since the law came into force on Nov. 21, most prominent human rights defenders in the country — including Ludmilla Alexeeva and MHG — have asserted that their groups will not brand themselves "foreign agents," no matter the consequences. It’s this stand that has Alexeeva anticipating criminal prosecution and the possibility of ending her days behind bars. So far, these actions have not provoked an official response.
The foreign agents law also appears designed to make human rights defenders reconsider a standard aspect of human rights work anywhere: seeking improvements through advocacy. That’s especially true if the foreign agents law is coupled with another dramatic legal novelty — the new law on treason, which conveniently came into force one week before the NGO legislation.
The country’s newly expanded definition of treason now includes "providing financial, technical, advisory or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization … directed at harming Russia’s security." The overly broad and vague definition seems deliberately designed to make activists think twice before doing international human rights advocacy — and to make lay people think twice before approaching international human rights organizations. In Russia’s current political climate, there is little doubt that the authorities’ threshold for interpreting what "harming Russia’s security" means will be quite low. Those charged with treason face a prison sentence of 12 to 20 years.
When it introduced the treason law as a draft, the Federal Security Service (FSB, the KGB’s successor) issued an explanatory memorandum that justified the amendments by referring to the "active use by foreign secret services" of foreign organizations — governmental and non-governmental — to harm Russia’s security. The FSB contends that "claims about a possible twist of spy mania in connection with the law’s passage are ungrounded and based exclusively on emotions." At the same time, law enforcement and security services will clearly be able to use the law to justify close surveillance of activists and non-governmental groups in the name of an inquiry, or to open a criminal case for alleged treason as a way of paralyzing a critic or political adversary.
In writing about the treason law and its destructive potential, I cannot help but think that the briefings on the status of Russian human rights defenders that I gave Council of Europe officials in Strasbourg, France in mid-October can now be viewed by Russian authorities as criminally liable. Likewise, the submission to the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women I co-authored in early November or my testimony before the U.S. Congress during the Tom Lantos Commission’s "Human Rights in Russia" hearings on Nov. 15 could trigger criminal persecution if someone at the Kremlin were to conclude that the public exposure of the problems I described was "directed at harming Russia’s security."
More to the point, my very job description could put me behind bars. As a researcher with Human Rights Watch, my mission is precisely to provide "assistance to an "international organization" — and the issues I focus on could be deemed sensitive from the perspective of national security since they pertain, for example, to abuses by law enforcement and security agencies during counterinsurgency operations in the North Caucasus. What was it again? Twelve to 20 years in prison? A very appealing prospect indeed. And unlike Alexeeva, I don’t have the benefit of old age to help come to terms with that possibility.
True, it’s not yet clear how, or whether, the treason law will be enforced. But that may be beside the point. Belarus, after all, adopted a very similar treason law last year and has to use it against anyone. But the legislation hangs like a sword of Damocles over human rights activists whom the government continues to hound using other tools.
In Russia, the effects of the new political atmosphere are clear and highly damaging. Several weeks before the treason law officially took effect, for instance, the European Union organized an academic conference in Brussels. Human Rights Watch has learned that a prominent social scientist from one of Russia’s regions planned to present a paper there, only to receive a phone call a few days before departure from the rector at his university, who candidly explained that the social scientist should not be traveling to the event if she valued her job or wanted to travel abroad again. Soon, the professor learned that a colleague from another university also decided to skip the conference under similar circumstances. In both cases, the rectors referred to "high-profile warnings" from Moscow and a "tense political climate."
The foreign agents law is also having a tangible impact on the country — one I experienced firsthand back in August during a research trip to a remote Russian province, where I interviewed medical professionals about a health-care access issue that even the most vigilant official would have a hard time branding "politicized." Just two days into the trip, local officials confronted me with questions: "Who invited you here?" "Who pays your travel costs?" "Where are your headquarters?" "Who funds your organization?" "Who is the local person arranging your meetings for you?" "Where is your authorization [for the visit] from the federal authorities?" "Where is the proof that you work in Russia legitimately?" They also contacted local health-care workers and cautioned them to stay away from Human Rights Watch and to exercise special caution vis-à-vis "foreign" actors.
Baffled by the experience, I returned to Moscow, only to discover a fascinating internal document from another province circulating on social networks. The letter was dated Aug. 9, 2012, printed on the letterhead of the administration chief for the Mari El Republic in Russia’s Volga region, and addressed to heads of local government agencies and services. It cited growing concern about the "activization of foreign and domestic non-profit organizations," and called on the officials to make sure that their staff at all levels "minimize participation in programs and socio-political events funded by foreign and Russian non-profit groups." The message, in other words, was to stop cooperating with these groups altogether.
Later, when the foreign agents law came into force on Nov. 21, activists from the human rights groups Memorial and Russia’s Movement for Human Rights came to work to discover that "Foreign agents! Love USA!" had been spray-painted on the walls of their office buildings. Stickers with the inscription "Foreign agent" were also found on the walls of the building housing the Moscow Helsinki Group.
I learned about the Moscow Helsinki Group and the history of Soviet dissenters in the mid-1990s, when I came to work for the Andrei Sakharov Archives as a graduate student at a university in Boston. Several years later, just before Putin came to power, that line on my CV landed me a job at the revived Moscow Helsinki Group led by Alexeeva. Working alongside some of the people — truly heroic figures — whose dossiers I used to handle in the archives was a heady feeling indeed.
But if someone had asked me back then, in late 1998, whether I thought that one day I could be faced with a choice similar to those Soviet dissidents, I would have laughed. "No way, that’s in the past," I would have responded. "The Soviet Union is no more, and no matter how challenging human rights work in Russia is, it cannot put you in jail."
I only wish I could say that now, just seven months into Putin’s third term in office.