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By William Fisher
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan famously exclaimed back in 1987.
Thankfully, that wall came down.
But today, another kind of wall is rising inside the former ‘evil empire’. It is a wall constructed by Vladimir Putin to separate the Russian people from their basic human rights. Over the past few years, Mr. Putin has been taking his country backward to a time reminiscent of the Czars. His increasingly authoritarian rule – known as ‘managed democracy’ -- has resulted in limitations on press and religious freedom, selective prosecutions, and a new wave of what Human Rights Watch calls ‘spy-mania’.
This week, a Moscow court upheld a ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses. The ruling arose from a Russian law that allows courts to ban religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior. A Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman said the decision will prevent the group from renting space for worship, holding bank accounts or otherwise supporting its religious activities. "Religious freedom has just turned back to where it was in Soviet times," said the organization's lawyer. There are about 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow and 133,000 nationwide, according to the group. Russia's 1997 religion law enshrines Orthodox Christianity as the country's predominant religion and pledges respect for Buddhism, Islam and Judaism -- called traditional religions -- but places restrictions on other groups.
Also this week, the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos oil company and reportedly Russia’s wealthiest man, opened in Moscow. With another shareholder, he faces charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement and a 10-year prison sentence. Many believe Khodorkovsky is an oligarch who pilfered the country to create his oil company, and welcome the case as a display of President Putin’s resolve to tackle economic crime. Others see Khodorkovsky as one of the rare Russian entrepreneurs to establish a transparent and socially responsible business, and are convinced that his case is a politically motivated show trial.
Show trial or not, if it’s anything like most trials in Russia, it is unlikely to showcase the judiciary’s independence. More likely, defense arguments will be downplayed, most of its motions overturned, and the outcome will have little to do with the hearing and a lot with executive will.
Press freedom has also been a victim of President Putin’s ‘managed democracy’. Under different pretexts, all of Russia’s nationwide television channels—ORT, NTV, TV6 and TVS were either shut down or effectively taken over by the state. After the newly compliant media played its part in the run-ups to parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian authorities moved forward in taming the press and disposing of intractable journalists. A heavy blow was the sacking of NTV’s most famous show host Leonid Parfenov and the cancellation of his popular analytical program. Parfenov was fired for making public an overt act of censorship — his NTV bosses, at the request of the security services, ordered him not to broadcast an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist killed in Qatar.
Russian non-governmental organizations and human rights groups have also been frequent targets. In his last state-of-the-union address in May President Putin launched an attack on human rights groups, accusing them of “receiving financing from influential foreign foundations and serving dubious groups and commercial interests,” and of forgetting “about some of the most acute problems of the country and citizens.”
Just days after the address, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused humanitarian organizations in Chechnya of using their missions as a cover for anti-Russian activities. One of the central TV channels, TVC, devoted an hour-long primetime program to denouncing the work of human rights groups, accusing them of what the presenter called their “hatred” for Russia. Along the same lines, a Kremlin political adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, rebuked rights activists for being "engrossed" in Western ideals. Masked intruders ransacked and smashed the office of the Human Rights Center in the city of Kazan in central Russia. According to the center’s leader, the intruders were citing the President’s state-of-the-nation address.
Nor has freedom of assembly gone unchallenged. Over the last two months police and security guards have violently dispersed at least three public rallies. For example, on June 2, police broke up a rally organized by the political party, Yabloko, and Communist Party members, to protest new laws on referendums and rallies, and arrested three Yabloko activists.
Spy-mania has become the latest source of abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia’s security service has tried to reassert its dominion over certain spheres of sensitive information. In doing so, it has, among other things, pressed dubious espionage charges against about a dozen scientists, journalists, and environmentalists—a phenomenon dubbed “spy mania” by rights activists.” Academics have been accused of working with foreign contacts on issues that, in Soviet times, were under the security service’s exclusive control, such as nuclear waste dumping, environmental degradation, and military technology.
The case of arms researcher Igor Sutyagin is an example. As of April 2004, Sutyagin had spent over four years in detention while his case was investigated and tried. That month, after a trial marred by violations of fair trial standards, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the longest prison term for high treason since Soviet times. The case served as a clear warning to other academics, journalists and other specialists doing research on sensitive issues.
Nor have Russia’s worst ingrained human rights problems improved under “managed democracy.” Police torture, coerced confessions and convictions on trumped-up charges remain rampant. The conscript army is corroded by violent hazing, ill-treatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. And xenophobia, extremism and discrimination against ethnic minorities are growing at an alarming rate.
Putin’s team presents all these developments as a reasonable price to pay for restoring order and stability. But the Russian people deserve better – an independent media, an end to selective prosecutions, accountability for abuse, and transparency in governance.
Moreover, Russia’s backsliding from democracy in domestic affairs will ultimately affect its foreign policy. So Russia’s partners need to send an unequivocal signal that they will not be “managed” by the Kremlin.