“Thousands of people turned out Monday for a protest here that was intended to draw attention to what organizers said was the return of political prosecutions in the Russian courts,” The New York Times’ Andrew E. Kramer reports from Moscow:
The rally (above), one of the largest protests in recent months, was timed to coincide with the anniversary of a riot in Bolotnaya Square last year that was followed by mass arrests and prosecutions under contentious circumstances. The prosecutions are known collectively as the Bolotnaya case.
That demonstration signaled the end of the winter’s large, peaceful protests. It also precipitated a series of laws enacted under President Vladimir V. Putin that constricted the rights to assemble and increased fines for unsanctioned gatherings.
“It’s understood that something powerful and something frightening to some has come out on the street,” Aleksei A. Navalny, a prominent opposition leader who is on trial on an embezzlement charge, told the crowd. “I am part of that frightening thing. It is enormous. It is the people.”
The visit coincides with the anniversary of the May 6, 2012, crackdown on peaceful protesters, when dozens of activists were beaten and detained “as provocateurs attempted to destabilize the demonstration and provoke unrest,” says the open letter, signed by Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“What happened last year was a rude provocation by riot police who behaved like beasts,” shouted Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader, addressing a commemorative protest today.
“I saw my friends savagely beaten by policemen with truncheons, who received free apartments for their part in this crime,” he added, referring to news reports that injured policemen were awarded free flats.
“It looks like a very powerful protest and it looks like it’s going to be full as much as the mayor of Moscow allows,” said Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from today’s rally. “It’s not the case yet that Putin has completely extinguished the spark of this protest.”
Existential threat to civil society
“The Russian authorities are methodically eliminating key civil-society organizations; ironically it is those who seek to make Russia a more transparent and democratic country who are the ones facing the greatest threat,” the letter notes:
Hundreds of Russian nongovernmental groups have been inspected by tax, justice, interior, and health authorities, occasionally accompanied by NTV camera crews. Already, some have been fined and forced to identify themselves as “foreign agents” for their work which involves defending the rights of citizens, uncovering arbitrary implementation of the law, abuse, and torture,; and advocating on behalf of millions of Russians. All of the groups labeled as “foreign agents” risk not only fine but closure. This is an existential threat to Russian civil society and therefore to a healthy and vibrant democratic Russia.
Today’s rally is the latest indication that “the opposition hope to win back the tens of thousands who protested against Putin early last year,” Reuters reports:
But, disjointed and chaotic, the opposition has lost many of its mainly young, urban and middle-class supporters. Anger has given way to apathy. The liberal Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy even held a phone-in asking whether there was any point holding the protest.
An initial rally in Moscow on Sunday attracted only several hundred people and appeared to underline divisions in the opposition, as most of its leaders stayed away…..As if to underline the opposition’s impotence, the Justice Ministry said in an online statement that it had refused to register a political party to support Navalny, one of the protest organizers. It did not say why.
But low levels of mobilization also reflect the success of the Kremlin’s strategy of intimidation, say activists.
“In 20 years of working in Russia, we have never seen a crackdown on civil society of this magnitude,” says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of the Russian branch of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“These trials against protesters have to be viewed in a wider context, including a massive ongoing crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, and a new law that changes the definition of treason so that it can apply to almost any Russian who interacts with a foreign organization,” she says. “It’s not really the NGOs that the authorities appear most afraid of. They’re worried about public protest, and one of the objectives behind these trials is likely to send a warning, particularly to younger people: ‘Before you take to the streets, think twice.’”
May 6, 2013
Honorable John Kerry
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Dear Mr. Secretary,
As you travel to Russia, we strongly urge you to highlight the importance of civil society in a democratic society, publicly and privately, during your upcoming visit. An unprecedented crackdown on human-rights groups and activists continues unabated. Many civil society groups under attack are targeted simply for having received support from foreign donors. A clear voice from the highest levels of the U.S. Government condemning the Russian government’s systematic campaign against fundamental human rights is desperately needed.
Your visit coincides with the anniversary of one of the largest crackdowns on peaceful protesters in Russia’s recent history on May 6, 2012. On that day, dozens of activists were beaten and detained as provocateurs attempted to destabilize the demonstration and provoke unrest. Trials of those arrested continue to this day; two multi-year sentences have already been awarded. Charges remain active against 25 more people for their participation in a demonstration against abuse of civil liberties, human rights violations, and pervasive corruption in Russia.
The Russian authorities are methodically eliminating key civil-society organizations; ironically it is those who seek to make Russia a more transparent and democratic country who are the ones facing the greatest threat. Hundreds of Russian nongovernmental groups have been inspected by tax, justice, interior, and health authorities, occasionally accompanied by NTV camera crews. Already, some have been fined and forced to identify themselves as “foreign agents” for their work which involves defending the rights of citizens, uncovering arbitrary implementation of the law, abuse, and torture,; and advocating on behalf of millions of Russians. All of the groups labeled as “foreign agents” risk not only fine but closure. This is an existential threat to Russian civil society and therefore to a healthy and vibrant democratic Russia.
The screws are tightening in many other ways. In an effort to shut down any discussion about the rights or existence of LGBT people in Russia, several Russian regions have passed laws prohibiting so-called “homosexual propaganda,” and a similar law is being considered on the national level. Russia recently introduced an internet blacklist which can easily be used to censor content without a court order. Last year, the Duma reintroduced criminal penalties for libel in an effort to strike fear into the hearts of critics of the government and officials. The leading anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny, faces a slew of politicized charges brought by authorities seeking to silence him and stifle public dissent overall.
In light of this ruthless assault on independent groups and activists in Russia, the U.S. government must speak out against such abuses of civil and political liberties in Russia and stand behind its convictions and those it has supported for over two decades. We urge you to state unambiguously to the Russian government and the Russian people that attacks on civil society will hamper efforts to develop bilateral relations.