Russian state acknowledged human rights and liberties as the supreme value by adopting a new Constitution in 1993, signing the European Convention on Human Rights and abiding by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. However, as the years passed by, human rights lost their initial significance.
From supreme value to repressive laws
In Russia people tend to think that universal human rights are first and foremost a tool of geopolitical struggle created in the West. Soon after being elected to the post of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova explained it in the following way: “The human rights issue is now actively exploited by Western and American institutions as a weapon of blackmailing, speculation and threats, as well as an attempt to destabilize and exert pressure over Russia”. At that same moment she outlined her main priority: to protect rights of Russian citizens abroad (above all in Ukraine and Baltic countries) and social rights within the country.
Tayana Moskalkova is a police major general. Some of her colleagues from the police are currently under special surveillance as they are suspected of bribes, usurpation of power and even tortures. Appointing Moskalkova to the position of an ombudsman is “a mockery of civil society”, commented Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Russian state acknowledged human rights and liberties as the supreme value by adopting a new Constitution in 1993, signing the European Convention on Human Rights and abiding by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. However, as the years passed by, human rights lost their initial significance. To a large extent it was connected to the so-called “color revolutions” in the former USSR Republics, from Georgia to Ukraine, where protection of human rights was one of the requests of the protesters. From Kremlin’s standpoint it was a false argumentation aimed at overthrowing the regime. That is why in the context of anti-western and isolationist sentiments, a commitment to the so-called special Russian values is considered a state goal. Russian critics of the West explain that it has proclaimed individualism to be a sacred cow, while the national idea for Russia is shared vision. They see the idea of individual rights that might contradict the interests of society as absolutely unacceptable.
As human rights activists have counted, more than 30 repressive laws or legal amendments have been adopted during the last five years. The authorities often exploit the law against extremism to silence those who criticize the current regime. A repost or a “like” of an allegedly extremist text in social networks can end in the imprisonment. The law on the freedom of assembly has also been toughened up and its violation leads to criminal liability. In December 2015 one of the activists was sentenced to three years in prison for participation in numerous demonstrations that were carried out without the permission of the government authorities.
The adoption of another notorious “foreign agent” law has been caused by the protests in Moscow in winter 2011-2012. It was Kremlin’s way to deal with its fear of the “color revolutions” allegedly run from abroad. The law requires the Ministry of Justice to register all non-governmental organizations that receive financing from abroad and engage in political activities as foreign agents. The term “foreign agent” itself is reminiscent of a clearly negative Soviet Union term that practically equals activists to spies.
After the second amendment that clarified the term “political activities”, almost everything that civil organizations do to control the activities of the authorities and to foster democracy and develop democratic institutions in the country can be considered a “political activity”. Thus, all NGOs, including social ones and charity, can be proclaimed “foreign agents” since “political activity” is now understood more broadly and includes everything that touches upon foreign policy, national security, socio-economic development, political system development, the activities of public institutions and legal regulation of civil and human rights. Appealing to government agencies, organizing public gatherings and debates, monitoring elections, publishing survey results, spreading judgments on governmental acts and everything else that somehow affects the government officials can also be considered a “political activity”.
The “foreign agents” law has above all affected NGOs that stand for human rights. About one third of all organizations registered as “foreign agents” have terminated their activities by now. The rest suffer from tightened reporting procedures, frequent government inspections and punishments in case they have failed to register as foreign agents themselves or forgotten to mention their status in publications as the law requires them to. Having been registered as foreign agents, human rights NGOs are discredited and lose opportunities to cooperate with government institutions. The law poses dire consequences for NGOs that dedicate themselves to spreading democratic values among the police, the judiciary, teachers and doctors.
“Legal framework created for non-commercial organizations in Russia contradicts international and European human rights standards”, stated the Council of Europe's former Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks in July 2017.
In November 2017, the Russian parliament has made a decision to register foreign media sources as foreign agents as well, which was a reaction to a corresponding requirement of the American government in relation to the Russian media channel RT. It appears that this was just the beginning of a large-scale legal initiative, which is supposed to prevent “any western influence on Russian internal affairs and elections”. Parliament members have already introduced new legislative initiatives suggesting that the so-called “undesirable activities”, which are carried out by foreign individuals, and “undesirable cooperation” of Russian citizens with “undesirable individuals and organizations” will be considered a violation as well.
The law about “undesirable organizations” have been negatively impacting foreign sponsors, especially American foundations, for two years already. Prosecutor General’s Office together with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not even need a court decision to add an organization to the list of undesirable ones, upon which the latter is forced to leave the country. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which is a group of constitutional law experts, have already decided that the law about “undesirable organizations” in its current form violates human rights as it imposes restrictions on the freedom of expression, assembly and association. Yet, the experts’ criticism is virtually ignored in Russia.
Such political climate also leads to attacks on human rights activists: in December 2014, a group of people in masks set the headquarters of the human rights organization “The Committee for the Prevention of Torture” in Grozny (Chechnya) on fire. In March 2016, Igor Kalyapin, the head of the “Committee”, was attacked by unknown people who poured paint over him and beat him up. In this sense the Northern Caucasus is the most difficult region: human rights activists frequently face threats, get kidnapped or arrested for dubious allegations. In April 2016, local patriots attacked the participants of a school historical contest that had been carried out by “Memorial”, a human rights and historical organization. The members of LGBTI organizations regularly report attacks and cases of hooliganism.
The right to pressure
The last intermediary between NGOs and the government other than an ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova is the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. Once in a year Vladimir Putin visits the Council members who are usually famous activists. The president praises their work and gives directions, which are, however, implemented only partially. This makes the attitude towards the Council mixed. Some activists consider it to be too close to the government and, therefore, only an element of décor in the state where the government does not take human rights seriously. Others are more pragmatic and point out that it is better to use the potential influence of the Council than to do completely nothing.
Traditional human rights organizations lack public support. Drawing on the soviet tradition, many Russians associate human rights mainly with social guarantees their motherland is supposed to provide for them: cheap housing, heating, food and employment. The right to political and religious freedom and the freedom of expression or assembly seem too abstract and distant from daily life, especially in society that lacks both trust towards its own fellow citizens and confidence in success of a collective action. Accordingly, out of all complaints received by the Constitutional Court during the year, only a small proportion is connected to political rights protection. The majority of complaints remain in the realm of criminal law, labor law or social welfare.
That is why western criticism in relation to Russia not respecting human rights, e.g. during its preparation for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, does not really damage the government’s reputation within the country. Today, as opposed to 20 years ago, it is no longer plausible to expect inevitable changes in Russian policies due to external criticism. On the other hand, in most cases NGOs do not consider that criticism counterproductive anymore. The situation with human rights is so unstable and worrying that western protests are highly unlikely to make things worse. Optimists hope that despite the isolationist propaganda, the way Russia is perceived abroad remains important at least for some of the elite. Increased attention could be the right pressure mechanism to bring about positive changes in certain cases.
Nevertheless, Russian government is doing its best to minimize external influence. Particular outrage, which is growing day by day, is caused by the European Court of Human Rights, although the latter attempts not to involve politics in its decisions. Many of its resolutions, however, disturb Russian government. Court resolutions on the freedom of worship (Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim and Buddhist religious associations, which are illegal in Russia) and the freedom of political activity (in connection with the annexation of the Crimea and the situation in Eastern Ukraine) are expected in the nearest future. Strasbourg has already received more than 220 complaints regarding mass detainments in many cities during the opposition protests against corruption on the 26th of March 2017.
Already in December 2015, the president Vladimir Putin signed a law that enabled the Constitutional Court to check whether the decisions made by the European Court are compatible with Russian Constitution. Up until now it has rarely been applied. But the priority of international human rights has thus been fundamentally put into question. In ambiguous cases the sovereignty of the state and the power of the elites might as well overweigh the international human rights standards.
The article was first published in a slightly revised version in the magazine POLIS (issues 1/2018).