Civil society in Russia

NEW RELEASES – With severe restrictions on the right to freedom of association, non-profit organisations in Russia are currently facing serious threats to their rights. After the introduction of a law that defines “undesirable” organisations and that distinguishes them from the legal, state-funded ones, the situation now is reaching a breaking point. How many other NGOs will have to close down or leave their country before the Russian government is taken into account for the approval of such provisions, which are clearly undermining the full enjoyment of human rights within the country?

Anglais

State Duma, Moscow - Source: Wikipedia

Background: Russia under Putin

After his reelection in 2012, President Vladimir Putin has been focusing on “systematically constricting and marginalizing organizations and individuals who were independent in their thoughts and actions.”1 Considering Russia’s growing international isolation, the authorities have sought to consolidate public opinion and support through boosting the notions of patriotism and nationalism. Thus, these values were embodied by the President himself, whose leadership was seen as a fundamental aspect of the solidity of the country. This meant that all oppositionists to the government were meant to be silenced in order not to hinder the process of consolidation of the Russian bloc. As Amnesty International reported, “On 27 February [2015], one of Russia’s most prominent opposition activists, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin. Mourners wishing to commemorate him at the site of his death were harassed by city authorities and pro-government supporters.”2

Moreover, on a human rights perspective, Russia’s record – which has never been highly pro-human rights - has worsened immensely in the past few years. In terms of freedom of expression, Amnesty International3 reported that authoritative control over internet usage has been extended. Thousands of websites regarding political satire, information shared by LGBTI activists, information on public protests and religious texts were blocked by internet providers. Freedom of peaceful assembly has also been violated since protests were infrequent and organisers were usually not allowed to hold rallies in central locations. Finally, the right to freedom of association has been further restricted in the past few years. In particular, this article will explore the struggle of NGOs to raise their voice within the current panorama.

 


Civil society as the enemy of the state?

Moscow’s tendency not to protect citizens’ rights and endorse the civil society’s role can be exemplified by the election of Tatyana Moskalkova, a major general of the Interior Ministry, as Russia’s human rights ombudsman in 2016. As Johannes Voswinkel of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung stated, “the police themselves, of whom Moskalkova was a member, have been accused by critics of committing human rights violations including torture.”4 In theory, the role of the ombudsman is the one of being an intermediary between NGOs and the Russian authorities. “Moskalkova, on the other hand, emphasized in her initial appearances as ombudsman that she understood human rights to be a weapon of the West against Russia and that her task was primarily to protect Russians living abroad.”5 Human rights activists saw this as a final departure from an idea of universality of human rights, “which have often been reviled as a Western concept”6 in Russia.

 

This idea of “cleaning” Russian civil society of all external interventions culminated in 2012 when the “foreign agent” law was approved. The law in question defined all NGOs with foreign funding as “foreign agents”, using a defamatory term from the Soviet era and with strong associations with Cold War espionage.7 This law mainly targeted organisations that worked on environmental protection, human rights, gender equality, and migrant protection. Remarkably, all organisations adopted a form of critical approach towards the government’s policies in their working mechanisms.8

 


The ‘undesirable’ law

The legal provisions adopted to contrast the work of the civil society didn’t stop in 2012. In fact, in May 2015 the Russian authorities passed a law on “undesirable organisations.” Since then, many NGOs closed down their work in Russia to avoid the prospect of being targeted and becoming victims of attacks, threats and harassment.9 Furthermore, the term “undesirable” is not specified in the legal provision. The result of this uncertainty is that Russian citizens can be sanctioned for their involvement in the activities of the “undesirable” NGOs. In spite of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe’s statement that the law on “undesirable organisations” restricts human rights, Russia still dangerously enforces this provision “especially now that the Russian Constitutional Court has the right to review decisions of the European Court of Human Rights with respect to their suitability for use in Russia.”10


Importantly, as McGill noted, “While the “foreign agents law” was intended to discredit and stigmatize NGOs […] the new law was designed to cut off their funding.”11 In fact, the Russian state has acted with the aim of delegitimising assistance from foreign donors whilst increasing the government’s funding for civil society organisations. However, with an increase of public funding two main issues have arisen.

Firstly a lack of independence of NGOs may occur. In fact, as Foreign Policy12 questioned: will NGOs essentially become another extension of the state? Considering the strict policies introduced on private and foreign donors, the fact that the State is the only supporter of civil society organisations may carry on with it risks of manipulation of the non-profit sector. Essentially, “the Kremlin’s support of Russian civil society is no less harmful than its suppressive legislation.”13

Secondly, a strong polarisation of Russian NGOs may take place: you’re either a ‘good’ one, funded by the state, or a ‘bad’ one, supported by corrupted Western countries. Human rights protection will be left out in this confused and legally vitiated process.

Ultimately, unfortunately, “By stifling peaceful dissent in this way the Russian authorities are preventing individuals and NGOs from making a positive contribution to their society and to government policy.”14 And in spite of all the money spent for NGOs, “In the end, Russia will be the poorer for it.”15

 

1VOSWINKEL Johannes (2016) “Civil society in Russia – Where external support is vital”, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, The Green Political Foundation. Available at: https://www.boell.de/en/2016/09/13/civil-society-russia-where-external-s...

2 Amnesty International, “Russian Federation 2015/2016” Report. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/russian-fed...

3Ibidem

4 VOSWINKEL, Op.Cit.

5Ibidem

6Ibidem

7MCGILL Heather (2015) “Russian NGOs cynically treated like enemies of the state”, Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/11/russian-ngos-cynically-tr...

8Ibidem

9 DALHUISEN John (2015) “Russia begins blacklisting ‘undesirable’ organizations”, Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/07/russia-begins-blacklistin...

10VOSWINKEL, Op.Cit.

11 MCGILL, Op.Cit.

12 LANSKOY Miriam (2014) “Putin’s Assault on Civil Society Continues”, Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/09/putins-assault-on-civil-society-cont...

13 ZAKHAROVA Olesya (2016) “Vladimir Putin Loves Civil Society (As Long As He Controls It)”, Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/12/vladimir-putin-loves-civil-society-a...

14MCGILL, Op.Cit.

15Ibidem

 

MR - Research Assistant at CIPADH

 

 

Webography

Amnesty International, “Russian Federation 2015/2016” Report. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/russian-fed...

Amnesty International (2014) “Russia: Violent attack on former Pussy Riot members must not be tolerated”. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/03/russia-violent-attack-for...

DALHUISEN John (2015) “Russia begins blacklisting ‘undesirable’ organizations”, Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/07/russia-begins-blacklistin...

National Endowment for Democracy, NED (2016) “Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman to The Senate Human Rights Caucus.” Available at:  http://www.ned.org/human-rights-abuses-in-putins-russia/

LANSKOY Miriam (2014) “Putin’s Assault on Civil Society Continues”, Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/09/putins-assault-on-civil-society-cont...

LOKSHINA Tanya (2015) “Russian civil society deemed ‘undesirable’”, Human Rights Watch. Available at:  https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/05/20/russian-civil-society-deemed-undesir...

MCGILL Heather (2015) “Russian NGOs cynically treated like enemies of the state”, Amnesty International. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/11/russian-ngos-cynically-tr...

VOSWINKEL Johannes (2016) “Civil society in Russia – Where external support is vital”, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, The Green Political Foundation. Available at: https://www.boell.de/en/2016/09/13/civil-society-russia-where-external-s...

ZAKHAROVA Olesya (2016) “Vladimir Putin Loves Civil Society (As Long As He Controls It)”, Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/12/vladimir-putin-loves-civil-society-a...

Category: