A Moscow court today rejected two appeals by one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups over prosecutors’ raids on its offices during a widespread Kremlin crackdown on civil society groups in March.“Memorial, which has fought to preserve the memory of Josef Stalin’s victims for a quarter of a century, has faced problems ever since Mikhail Gorbachev gave it his blessing in the Soviet Union’s dying days,” Reuters reports:
Its employees have faced harassment and bureaucratic obstacles at almost every turn. But Memorial and groups like vote-monitor Golos, which has revealed electoral fraud, say they have never faced a bigger threat to their existence than in Putin’s year-old third term.
The group began legal proceedings in an attempt to avoid being branded a “foreign agent” under a new NGO law, but the court dismissed its case, on the basis of evidence of foreign-funding.
“It has been determined that the organization received over 52 million rubles (about $1,6 million) in 2010 from foreign citizens or people without citizenship and 40 million rubles (near $1,3 million) in 2011, including from the Ford Foundation,” a prosecutor said during the hearing of Memorial’s complaint in Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky Court.
“This is a violation of the law,” Memorial’s defense said. “We are learning just now that we are involved in political activities, it is interesting that we have not been previously provided with such documents.”
“There has never been such an assault on civil liberties in the last 20 years. This is an attempt to return to the Soviet era,” said Memorial’s head, Alexander Cherkasov (above).
“We are not going to register as a foreign agent because it would be a lie … An agent is someone like James Bond who comes down with a parachute and blows up railways.”
The Memorial Human Rights Center was established in 1991 on the basis of what it called an “appeal to society to not forget the cruel and massive human rights violations in our country’s past, but also not to ignore that human rights violations continue to occur.”
The NGO crackdown and the recent spy scandal in Moscow official anti-Americanism are both manifestations of Russia’s official new anti-Americanism which has “led some observers to muse about ‘Stalinism light’ and … the Kremlin’s self-image of a besieged fortress,” says a leading analyst.
“Once back in the Kremlin, Putin resolved to weed out all potential sources of what he regarded as foreign influence on Russian domestic politics,” writes Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin. “Rather than closing down those NGOs that were leaning toward the opposition or were just openly critical, he chose to have them discredited.”
“That strategy of branding the Kremlin’s more outspoken opponents as foreign agents … depended critically on the effectiveness of the official TV-spread propaganda in creating an image of Western ‘competitors’ seeking to weaken Russia, steal its secrets, and undermine its unity from within,’ he contends.
“As much as this strategy has incensed Russia’s liberals, it has been more successful than not. Not only have all the factions in the Duma supported the NGO law, but the population at large has been mostly in agreement with the need to limit foreigners’ reach in Russia—or they have been indifferent to the entire controversy.”
The Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society reflects its broader aim of suppressing dissent, says Pavel Chikov, a member of Putin’s human rights council and head of the election monitor Golos, which exposed widespread vote-rigging during the 2011 Duma elections and the 2012 presidential election that returned Putin a new six-year term. The group was also targeted in the March raids, fined roughly $10,000 (£6,600) and faces the prospect of closure.
“The last three months have seen unprecedented efforts to isolate Russia from the west and shield authorities from criticism,” he said. “NGOs are currently spending all their energy working out how to defend themselves. Many activists are losing hope.”
One US-based analyst calls for recent events to be kept in perspective.
“Domestically, Russia is a corrupt and semi-authoritarian country where citizens lack many of the protections in the Bill of Rights and elections are not fair,” Paul Saunders, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for the National Interest, writes for The Washington Post:
That said, it is no longer the Russia where dissidents were routinely sent to psychiatric hospitals (as happened in the 1970s), shipped en masse to Siberian labor camps (the 1960s) or shot after show trials — real show trials, in which the accused confessed after torture and threats to their families (the 1930s)…… Some realities in Russia are indeed disturbing, but a sense of perspective is needed. If Moscow were really the capital of a brutally authoritarian anti-American state, things could be far worse — and profoundly damaging to U.S. national interests. But demonizing Russia doesn’t change conditions there and only undermines our ability to get what we want and need.
But any ‘demonizing’ appears to be taking place in Moscow, not Washington, Carnegie analysts Trenin writes, and it more of a reflection of Putin’s regressive politics and paranoia than of US policy or intentions.
“Another element of Russia’s anti-Americanism is linked to the construction of an official version of Russian patriotism, which Putin has undertaken to build,” he contends:
Such an approach is backward-looking and clearly disappointing, even though Russia is hardly alone in creating its official patriotism in opposition to a stronger foreign power thought to be harboring designs on it. Thus, Russia’s most recent version of anti-Americanism is essentially about Russia. More specifically, it is about Russian domestic politics.
As such, it is the authorities’ reaction to a phenomenon called the “Russian Awakening”: a gradual maturing of Russian society, some of whose members are stepping out of their private niches into the public arena.
In any case, the practical effect of Putin’s authoritarianism differs little from that of Soviet totalitarianism for Russia’s dissenting voices, observers suggest.
“A totally new period has begun in Russia: The suppression of all independent organizations by the Kremlin,” said Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center pollster, which has charted Putin’s falling ratings:
Gudkov accused Putin’s allies of trying to suffocate independent research groups and civil society. He said state prosecutors had threatened to take his group to court over its refusal to register as a foreign agent, adding: “The Sword of Damocles will always hang over us.”