A Culture of Fear, Made in Russia

Ukraine has a lingering human rights predicament -- but an even grimmer one awaits Crimea.


Two decades of stuttering human rights reforms in Ukraine were almost scuppered overnight when, on Jan. 16, the parliament in Kiev railroaded through a raft of new legislation to restrict freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. A virtual carbon-copy of laws adopted in neighboring Russia in recent years, the new statutes were tailor-made to give the Ukrainian authorities increased powers to prosecute those involved in the anti-government protests in Kiev’s central Maidan Square, as well as silence dissent more widely. President Viktor Yanukovych must have hoped that the ranks of peaceful protesters would be cowed — but they weren’t. As with earlier attempts to violently disperse them, the number of protesters simply swelled as their list of grievances grew. Violence bred violence, and a month later, the world watched with horror as the protest reached its bloody conclusion.

Fast-forward a month and Yanukovych has now fled to Russia, his corruption has been exposed, his government has been deposed, and his party’s majority in the parliament has been decimated by defections. The new government, however, is not without its own problems: There is lingering impunity for the Euromaidan violence, and just this week, the head of the country’s leading TV channel was violently attacked over his editorial policies by a member of parliament who stormed the studio with his thugs.

Reforms that successive governments before now have failed to introduce will not be made easier by the huge economic challenges the country now faces, the lingering menace of further Russian intervention in the east, and the motley crew of far-right nationalists that played their part in bringing down the government and who have reaped their reward with important posts in the new administration. Leaders will have to work hard to ensure that all Ukraine’s residents feel they have an equal share in their country’s future.

And then there is Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have gotten what he wanted, as have the majority of Crimeans, with the March 16 referendum on secession and the subsequent annexation of the region by Moscow (not that Crimea’s ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars felt invited to freely express their views on the matter). Many in Crimea will feel that they have finally come home. But if anyone really thinks that the raising of the Russian flag over their civic buildings will do anything to improve governance, root out corruption, or strengthen democratic participation in the running of their affairs, they are likely to be quickly disabused of the notion — and left with little room to object.

On March 18, when Putin stood in the Kremlin’s gilded halls and set the seal on what was effectively a military takeover, he exported Russian laws to Crimea. With the stroke of a pen, Crimeans are now bound by a different set of rules. And this will have a devastating impact on their ability to exercise their human rights.

They should heed the warnings of recent history. When Putin’s current term began on May 7, 2012, he spoke in favor of greater citizen participation in public affairs and encouraged greater consultation across Russian society about legal reforms. But the reverse has happened. The Russian authorities’ response to peaceful protest was perhaps best illustrated by the brutal crackdown on an opposition demonstration in Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin’s inauguration speech. As tens of thousands took to the streets, they were herded into a narrow corridor by baton-wielding riot police. Hundreds were arrested and scores injured in the chaos that ensued.

At the show trials of arrested Bolotnaya activists last month, even the international spotlight of the Sochi Olympic Games failed to stem the fervor with which the state apparatus put down another peaceful protest outside the Moscow court. Hundreds more were arrested.

More broadly, over the past two years, ordinary Russians — not just the most vocal critics of the Kremlin — have seen their freedoms steadily steamrolled by the government. A number of new legislative and administrative measures have been introduced that breach not only international legal obligations, but Russia’s own constitution.

  • Legislation curtailed peaceful protests with heavy fines for organizers of demonstrations found in breach of a restrictive list of rules and regulations. In 2013, more than 600 people were detained in the course of 81 events in and around Moscow alone; hundreds more were detained just last month.
  • The 2012 "foreign agents" law unleashed a clampdown on NGOs across Russia. Several organizations and their leaders have been slapped with hefty fines for refusing to register as "foreign agents." Some have been forced to close and many more fear further persecution.
  • Homophobic legislation introduced last year is being used to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and assembly of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people (LGBTI) and has already encouraged homophobic violence across Russia. Fines of up to $3,000 are imposed for breaching it.
  • Blasphemy was criminalized after the Pussy Riot punk group staged a brief and peaceful — albeit provocative — political performance in the main Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 2011.
  • Libel is a crime in Russia once more, after a July 2012 law reversed a legislative initiative that just seven months earlier had decriminalized it.

So don’t expect concerned Crimeans to engage in an informed public debate about this "made in Russia" repression, which is already beginning to take hold in the peninsula –with journalists threatened, harassed, and detained by armed men. They won’t be able to now that they are officially part of Moscow’s orbit. In Russia, state control has recently been consolidated over a prominent news agency, critical news websites and blogs have been blocked and threatened with prosecution, the editor and director of an influential independent media outlet have been sacked, and a popular cable news channel has been taken off the air by several satellite providers.

The warning signs are clear. In Crimea, the crackdown on dissent and human rights is coming. But the repression won’t be televised.

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