How Civil Rights Have Receded in Russia Under Putin

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By OLGA STARTCEVA, Citizens’ Watch Russia

In March 2012, Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation for the third time. The results of the elections putting Putin back into power triggered mass protests, which were then brutally suppressed.1 Since then, the Russian state has adopted repressive legislation to discriminate against human rights defenders and organisations on the grounds of foreign funding, mission (often LGBTQ+ and women’s rights), and dissent or free speech. These are often justified under a defence of sovereignty against foreign influence.

As tight as Russian regulation of NGO activities and freedom of expression currently is, it stands to toughen further if the planned changes are adopted after the State Duma elections in 2021.

DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF FOREIGN FUNDING

This shift began in July 2012 with the introduction of a new status of ‘Non-Commercial Organisation Performing the Function of a Foreign Agent’ (Foreign Agents Law).2 NGOs engaged in political activities in Russia and receiving foreign funding now needed to register on a ‘foreign agents’ roster and periodically submit reports on their sources of income and activities. Non-compliance with the obligations has led to administrative3 and criminal liability.4

There have been two cases of criminal prosecution: Valentina Cherevatenko, chair of Women of the Don, and Alexandra Koroleva, director of Ekozaschita!. In June 2017, Cherevatenko was charged with “malicious evasion of duties imposed by the law on non-profit organisations performing the functions of a foreign agent”.5 The charges were dropped a month later.

Alexandra Koroleva was charged with “malicious non-execution by the head of organisation of a court sentence” in May 2019.6 The court found Ekozaschita! to be non-compliant with reporting obligations under the Foreign Agents Law and imposed fines amounting to more than 2,000,000 rubles (EUR 22,500). Koroleva left Russia and was granted political asylum in Germany.7

More restrictions followed in 2014 and 2018.8 9 10 Nowadays, the Ministry of Justice puts all NGOs critical of the authorities onto a register, made possible due to a ‘very broadly construed’ definition of ‘political activity’.11 Burdensome reporting obligations, large fines, and even the term ‘foreign agents’ itself, which has negative connotations in the Russian language,12 resulted in the liquidation of many NGOs by their own decision13 or by a court decision. 14 There has been some pushback domestically and from organisations such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee,15 but these efforts have all been defeated in the domestic courts,16 including the Constitutional Court.17 However, a decision from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is still awaited.18

UNDESIRABLE FOREIGN AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS

In 2015, the Prosecutor General of Russia received the power to declare a foreign or an international organisation ‘undesirable’ if the latter “presents a threat to national security.”19 This, and other amendments, caused a significant decrease in the financing of NGOs in Russia.20 The roster of undesirable organisations now lists 29 organisations, including the Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the European Endowment for Democracy.21 All three have stopped their grant programmes in Russia.

MASS MEDIA AND BLOGGERS AS FOREIGN AGENTS

In November 2017 foreign media organisations receiving foreign funding were obliged to go on a register and mark their publications as being produced by a ‘foreign agent’.22 The roster currently includes 11 mass media organisations.23 This was followed, in December 2019, by a decree that individuals were obliged to register on a ‘foreign agents’ mass media roster if they participated in the creation or publication of ‘foreign agents’ mass media, along with receiving direct or indirect funding from abroad.24 Although no one is yet included on the register, as one report noted, the amendments “substantially limit the diversity of media sources in a manner that is disproportionate to any legitimate aim.”25

RECENT THREATENING DEVELOPMENTS

This tide of legislation has not abated. In November 2020, two bills were introduced to the State Duma, intending to further hinder the work of human rights defenders and organisations. The first,26 introduced by the Cabinet of Ministers of the Russian Federation, broadens the definition of foreign funding and obliges NGO-foreign agents to submit their project activities to the Ministry of Justice.27 They face liquidation if they perform activities planned without the prior authorisation of the Ministry of Justice. The second bill was introduced by deputies of the State Duma and senators of the Federal Assembly.28 It proposed to register unincorporated associations and people receiving foreign funding on the ‘foreign agents’ roster.

DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF A FIELD OF WORK: LGBTQ+ AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Since 2006, the Russian Federation has started to adopt laws banning ‘gay propaganda’.29 In July 2013 ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ was prohibited on federal level.30 In response, the United Nations Human Rights Committee regards these laws as “exacerbat[ing] the negative stereotypes against LGBT individuals and represent[ing] a disproportionate restriction of their rights.”31 Under these laws, human rights defenders has been persecuted for awareness-raising and educational projects among young people. In January 2015, Elena Klimova, who organised the project Children-404, which aimed to support LGBT teens, was fined for ‘gay propaganda’.32 LGBT activist Julia Tsvetkova was fined under the same charges in July 2020.33
Generally, LGBTQ+ people face unpredictable law enforcement and absurd charges. As victims of ‘honour killings’ and torture in the North Caucasus, they receive no protection.34 They are also denied the right to peaceful assembly. In October 2006, the mayor of Moscow refused to hold a gay pride event because such assemblies were viewed as promoting homosexuality.35 And, in October 2020, the persecution of single gay fathers, who used the services of surrogate mothers, was widely reported. A representative of the law enforcement authorities was reported as saying: “The men, in accordance with the law, could not be donors through in vitro fertilisation, since they have a non-traditional sexual orientation. They might be charged with human trafficking.”36

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Women are another group facing continuous discrimination and violence, and for whom the situation has worsened in recent years. Gender stereotypes are widespread,37 and the protection of ‘traditional family values’ was even inserted into the recently amended Constitution of the Russian Federation.38 Women are underrepresented in decision-making positions in political and public life.39 Russia is 122nd in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020.40 The situation improved slightly with the decision of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women committee,41 which led the list of forbidden jobs for women being reduced from 400 to 80 positions.42

Honour killings still occur in the Northern Caucasus43 and domestic violence is also mostly unpunished across the state.44 In 2017, the first offence of domestic violence not leading to physical injury was decriminalised.45 This raised concern among UN treaty bodies,46 lawyers, and human rights defenders.
Despite the flaws in regulation and enforcement, the law on domestic violence has still not been adopted.47 Meanwhile, applications concerning police failure to respond to domestic violence have been submitted to the ECtHR.48 That Court has already reproached Russian authorities for failing to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence, saying the failure is due to “reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women.”49

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Journalists, activists, and human rights defenders have been intimidated, harassed and killed without repercussion.50 In 2010-2013, the political speech of artists was persecuted under laws governing hooliganism.51 In June 2013, Article 148 on Protecting Religious Convictions and Feelings of Citizens Against Insults was added to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (CC RF).52 Several criminal cases followed, receiving international attention for their disproportionality.53
The notoriously high number of criminal persecutions for political speech has been caused by the legal enforcement of Article 282 of the CC RF on incitement of hatred or enmity. Partial decriminalisation of Article 282 has not improved the situation, as new articles to the CC RF have been introduced that enable law enforcement officials to continue silencing critics of the regime.54 These and other developments, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, “separately and jointly create a substantial chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression of dissenting political opinions”.55

MEMORY LAWS AND POLITICS

Suppression of freedom of speech is a part of state politics of memory. There is one official version of the past.56 It is promoted with ‘patriotic education’, criminalisation of discussion on the role of USSR in the Second World War,57 and limited access to archives.
These have been made possible through a series of laws and developments at the centre of the state. In October 2012, the President created a special Department charged with youth policy and patriotic education. 58 This was followed, in 2016, by a State Programme on Patriotic Education.59 According to the State Programme, the Ministry of Defence is one of the main ministries responsible for its implementation. For instance, the Ministry of Defence created the ‘public movement’ ‘Yunarmia’,60 which recruits 11-year-old schoolchildren to participate in re-enactments of Second World War battles.61 International experts find such significant involvement of the Ministry of Defence in youth education worrying. 62

The law criminalising, inter alia, distortion of the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War, was signed by the President on 5 May 2014.63 Investigative bodies do not take into account the aim and context of the actions that allegedly distort the role of the USSR, which leads to absurd charges.64 The law raised concerns from the UNHRC.65 However, in October 2020, President Putin publicly supported a proposal to criminalise comparison of the role of the USSR and fascist Germany during the Second World War.66

These laws prevent free discussion of the past. Another obstacle is limited access to archives. In Russia, unlike Ukraine and Baltic countries, documents and court cases related to the time of repressions in the USSR are not made public.67 This limitation poses obstacles for historians and other people trying to seek information.68

ENDGAME

State authorities are given the right to interpret the past. Consequently, they believe it gives them the right to decide Russia’s present and future. Any dissent is labelled as traitorous and defamatory to the memory of ancestors.69 All those who disagree are prosecuted and persecuted.

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  1. See, for instance, Russia: the March of Millions, Human Rights Watch, 13 June 2012. URL (accessed 26 November 2020).
  2. Federal Law No. 121-FZ from 20 July 2012 On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-Commercial Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent.
  3. Those NGOs, which do not subscribe willingly, should be fined under Article 19.34 of the Code on Administrative Procedure of the Russian Federation and subscribed to the registry by the Ministry of Justice.
  4. Those NGOs who ‘maliciously evade’ filing the documents required for inclusion in the register of NGO-foreign agents can be prosecuted under Article 330.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
  5. Case history: Valentina Cherevatenko, Frontline Defenders. URL (accessed 26 November 2020).
  6. Communication of special rapporteurs AL RUS 5/2019 from 17 July 2019.
  7. Alexandra Koroleva received political asylum in Germany, 20 December 2019, Ecodefence! URL (last accessed 2 December 2020).
  8. Federal law from No. 355 14 November 2014 On Amendments of Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Concerning Financial Reporting of the Political Parties, Electoral Associations, Candidates for Elections in State Organs and Organs of Local Self-Governing Bodies.
  9. Federal law No. 362 from 18 October 2018 On Amendments of Article 5 of the Federal law ‘On Anti-Corruption Assessment of Legislation and Draft Legislation’.
  10. Federal law from No. 203-FZ from 19 July 2018 On Amendments of Article 18.1 of the Federal law ‘On Detention of Persons Suspected and Accused of Committing Crimes’ and the Federal law ‘On Public Oversight of Human Rights in Places of Detention and Assistance to Persons in Places of Detention’. The mandate of POCs is to monitor conditions in places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment.
  11. Concluding observations (2015) CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7.
  12. Concluding observations (2012) CAT/C/RUS/CO/5, para. 12.
  13. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7; Concluding observations (2015) CEDAW/C/RUS/CO/8, para. 15; Concluding observations (2017) CERD/C/RUS/CO/23-24, para. 11.
  14. See for example Communication of special rapporteurs AL RUS 2/2016 from 25 February 2016 concerning liquidation of NGO ‘Agora’.
  15. Concluding observations (2018) CAT/C/RUS/CO/6, para. 28.
  16. According to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe on “June 2015 at least 189 cases were brought before domestic courts both in the first instance and at appellate levels in respect of the application of the Law on Foreign Agents. Of those, at least 28 judicial decisions were delivered in favour of the NCOs concerned, while at least 121 judicial decisions found that the law had been correctly applied against the NCOs” (Opinion of the Commissioner for Human Rights (CommDH(2015)17) from 9 July 2015, p. 4).
  17. Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation No. 10-P from 8 April 2014.
  18. In March 2017 the ECtHR communicated the applications of Ecodefence! and 48 other NGOs included by the Ministry of Justice to the ‘foreign agents’ roster. The final judgement has not been adopted yet. See, Ecodefence! and 48 others v Russia (9988/13 and others) from 22 March 2017.
  19. Federal Law No. 129 from 23 May 2020 On Amendment of Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation.
  20. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7; CERD/C/RUS/CO/23-24, para. 11.
  21. Roster on foreign and international non-governmental organisations, activities of which are recognised in Russia as undesirable, the Ministry of Justice, URL (accessed 2 December 2020).
  22. The Federal Law Amending articles 10.4 and 15.3 of the Federal Law On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection and Article 6 of the Law ‘On Mass Media’ (referred also as ‘Foreign Agents Media Law’.
  23. Register of foreign mass media organisations performing the functions of a foreign agent, Ministry of Justice, URL(accessed 14 November 2020).
  24. The Federal Law No. 426-FZ from 2 December 2019 On Amending the Law of the Russian Federation ‘On Mass Media’ and the Federal Law ‘On Information, Information Technologies and Protection of Information’.
  25. Communication of the special rapporteurs OL RUS 2/2018 from 5 February 2018, p. 3.
  26. Bill No. 1052523-7 On amendments to the Federal Law ‘On Non-Commercial Organisations’ in terms of Improving the Legal Regulation of the Activities of Non-Commercial Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent and Structural Divisions of Foreign Non-Commercial Non-Governmental Organisations, URL (accessed 26 November 2020).
  27. Similar obligations have been imposed on branches of foreign non-profit organisations by the Federal Law No. 18 from 10 January 2006.
  28. Bill No. 1057914-7 On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Relating to Establishing Additional Measures to Counter Threats to National Security. URL (accessed 21 November 2020).
  29. See, Justice or Condemnation? LGBT rights in Russia, October 2016, Equal Rights Trust, p. 14. https://www.equalrightstrust.org/sites/default/files/ertdocs/Russia%20LGBT%20report_RUS.pdf. 
  30. Federal Law No. 135-FZ from 29 June 2013 On Amendments to Article 5 of the Federal Law ‘On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development’ and Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in order to Protect Children From Information that Promotes the Denial of Traditional Family Values. URL (accessed 20 November 2020).
  31. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7.
  32. The Court in Nizhny Tagil fined the organiser of the project Children-404, 22 January 2016, Radio Liberty. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  33. LGBT activist Julia Tsvetkova was fined up to 75,000 rubles for drawings on VKontakte. 10 July 2020, OVD-Info. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  34. Concluding observations (2012), CAT/C/RUS/CO/5, para. 13.
  35. Judgement of the ECtHR in Alekseyev v. Russia (4916/07, 25924/08, 14599/09) from 21 October 2010.
  36. Arrests of fathers of children from surrogate mothers are planned within the case of human trafficking, 30 September 2020. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  37. Report of the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (A/HRC/23/34/Add.1) from 11 March 2013, para. 105, see also CEDAW/C/RUS/CO/8, para. 19.
  38. Constitution of the Russian Federation as amended on 1 July 2020, Section 1 (в) Article 114. URL (accessed 2 December 2020).
  39. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7; Concluding observations (2017) E/C.12/RUS/CO/6, para. 24.
  40. Global Gender Gap Report 2020, World Economic Forum, 2020. URL (accessed 2 December 2020).
  41. Views of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 7 (3) of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (63rd session) on Communication No. 60/2013, 25 February 2016. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  42. Order of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation No. 512n from 18 July 2019 On Adoption of the List of Industries, Jobs and Positions with Harmful and (or) Dangerous Working Conditions, where the Use of Women's Labor is Limited. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  43. A/HRC/23/34/Add.1, para. 106; CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7.
  44. CEDAW/C/RUS/CO/8, para. 23; CAT/C/RUS/CO/6, para. 30.
  45. Federal Law of February No. 8-FZ from 7 February 2017 On Amendments to Article 116 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
  46. E/C.12/RUS/CO/6, para. 38.
  47. A bill on domestic violence in Russia has been published. What's wrong with him? BBC, 29 November 2019. URL (accessed 26 November 2020).
  48. OVCHINNIKOV v. RUSSIA (12546/20), Communicated Case from 9 September 2020.
  49. Volodina v. Russia, no. 41261/17, 9 July 2019, para. 132.
  50. Concluding observations (2012) CAT/C/RUS/CO/5, para. 12; CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7; Russia: As space for independent media shrinks, journalists find themselves under increasing threats of physical violence, Index on Censorship, 27 July 2019. URL
  51. Voina: artists at war, Open Democracy, 11 February 2011, URL (accessed 15.11.2020); Mariya Alekhina and Others v Russia (38004/12) ECtHR, 17 July 2018.
  52. Inappropriate enforcement of anti-extremist legislation in Russia in 2013, Center for Information and Analyses (SOVA), 4 June 2014. URL (accessed 15 November 2020).
  53. The Pussy Riot-inspired Russian law that got a Pokémon Go player arrested, Washington Post, 7 September 2016, URL (accessed 15 November 2020).
  54. In the Absence of the Familiar Article. The State Against the Incitement of Hatred and the Political Participation of Nationalists in Russia in 2019, Center for Informational and Analyses (SOVA), 17 March 2020. URL (accessed 15 November 2020); Concluding observations on the twenty-third and twenty-fourth periodic reports of the Russian Federation, CERD/C/RUS/CO/23-24, 20 September 2017, para. 11.
  55. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7.
  56. Past That Divides: Russia’s New Official History, Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, 5 October 2017. URL (accessed 15 November 2020).
  57. The HRC expressed concern with the law criminalising, inter alia, distortion of the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War signed by the President on 5 May 2014 (Article 354.1 of the CC RF) (CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7). In October 2020 President Putin supported the proposal to criminalise comparison of the role of the USSR and fascist Germany in the Second World War. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  58. Decree of the President of the Russian Federation No. 1416 from 20 October 2012 On Improving the State Policy in the Field of Patriotic Education. URL (accessed 15 November 2020).
  59. Resolution of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 1493 from 30 December 2015 On approval of the state programme ‘Patriotic education of citizens of the Russian Federation’ for 2016-2020. URL: http://government.ru/docs/21341/ (accessed 22 November 2020).
  60. All-Russian Military-Patriotic Public Movement ‘Yunarmia’, Ministry of Defence, URL
  61. What kind of citizens does the Yunarmia bring up and why? Novaya Gazeta, 22 February 2019. URL
  62. A/HRC/23/34/Add.1, para. 57.
  63. Federal Law of 5 May 2014 No. 128-FZ On Amending Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation. URL
  64. A resident of St. Petersburg was fined for a photo with a swastika published in VK, Znak.com, 3 October 2020, URL (accessed 24 November 2020); You will go to prison because of history, Livejornal Varlamov, 10 August 2018. URL (accessed 24 November 2020).
  65. CCPR/C/RUS/CO/7.
  66. Putin approved the proposal to ban the comparison of the actions of the USSR and the Nazis, RIA NOVOSTI, 27 October 2020. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  67. The right to know. Report of the Team 29 on the access to information in Russia, 28 September 2017. URL (accessed 22 November 2020).
  68. Open archives and the right to return home: protect the rights of the repressed, Pravo.ru, 30 October 2020. URL (accessed 24 November 2020).
  69. Constitution of the Russian Federation, as amended on 14 March 2020, sections 2,3 Article 67.1.