Elections, extremism and extraordinary measures

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 22 July 2021

Header pic: Workers paint over graffiti of Alexei Navalny, with text that reads ‘the hero of the new age’, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 28 April 2021. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

With Russia’s parliamentary elections imminent, Global Insight examines the continued efforts to suppress dissent and silence critics – and what it means for the rule of law.

Tensions are rising in Russia, and it’s not only due to the pandemic. As the country prepares to hold parliamentary elections in September, a sustained government campaign against political opponents and their supporters is reaching breaking point.

This year has already seen opposition leader Alexei Navalny and countless others detained, fined or placed under investigation based on spurious claims. Now a raft of new laws is stoking renewed fears that fundamental freedoms are being dramatically curtailed ahead of voters going to the polls.

Legislation passed in May banned members of ‘extremist’ organisations from running for office. A Moscow court ruling in June declared Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) ‘extremist’, making it impossible for the Kremlin critic to stand in the upcoming elections without severe consequences.

Human rights and civil liberties have been steadily eroded in Russia for more than two decades. Yet this latest piece of legislation is just one of around 2,700 laws passed by the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, from 2016 to 2021, according to local news agency TASS. The rate at which legislation has been passed in the country over the past five years has raised alarm bells.

‘It’s absolutely abnormal’, says Galina Arapova, a leading human rights lawyer and director of the Mass Media Defence Centre in Voronezh. ‘If you look at how they pass any of the laws, they don't even discuss them. Sometimes they push through the parliamentary amendments to the laws or draft laws to a second and third reading within one session. The next day the president signs it and the next day the law enters into force. Sometimes they’ve passed 500 laws in one day. That's how it works now. Nobody here takes the Duma seriously.’

December and June, just before the Duma adjourns for seasonal recesses, tend to be particularly busy times for Russian lawmakers. Since December 2020, a series of increasingly draconian laws have been passed to curb ‘foreign agents’, public demonstrations, election campaigning and educational activities.

The judiciary has been put in a place where it's not fair justice anymore – they’re just playing a political role. The rule of law is totally disregarded here now

Galina Arapova
Director, Mass Media Defence Centre, Voronezh

Arapova says recent actions have plunged Russia into its deepest human rights crisis for decades. ‘It's not just because of legislative developments, which are quite critical and repressive, but also in light of the political tensions with the Alexei Navalny arrest and him being put in jail for no legal reasons’, says Arapova. ‘That was clear to everyone, and it was even underlined by the European Court of Human Rights. The judiciary has been put in a place where it's not fair justice anymore – they’re just playing a political role. The rule of law is totally disregarded here now.’

In 2016, the ruling United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya) party won 54.2 per cent of the vote, taking 343 out of 450 seats, thus ensuring the judiciary could be tightly controlled by the current presidential administration. The chamber in its current form held its final session on 17 June. The upcoming elections will define the Duma’s composition for the next five years and come at a testing time for the Pro-Putin ruling party, whose popularity has plummeted following the controversial decision to raise the state retirement age in 2018 and, more recently, its mishandling of the pandemic.

Alleged ballot-rigging in the 2011 parliamentary elections sparked some of the biggest protests the country has witnessed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Sir Tony Brenton, who served as UK Ambassador to Russia from 2004–2008, tells Global Insight the government has been haunted by this memory and had no choice but to take a different tack this time. ‘This was as near as the Putin regime has come to actually falling’, he says. ‘They want to avoid that, which means they want to avoid too much visible fixing of the elections. This means they have to control the elections through the rather brutal means that they're using. This has increasingly moved into the hands of the security agencies, who are much less pernickety about the methods they're willing to use to get the results they want.’

They have to control the elections through the rather brutal means that they're using. This has increasingly moved into the hands of the security agencies

Sir Tony Brenton
UK Ambassador to Russia, 2004–2008

Navalny, who was imprisoned in February on a range of charges shortly after returning from Berlin where he received treatment for Novichok poisoning, is one example. He’s far from the only one though, says Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and prominent campaigner on Russian human rights issues. ‘Navalny is a truly popular opposition candidate’, he says. ‘If there was a genuine democracy and open system, he would be the president of Russia. That’s terrifying for Putin because if he became president, he would look into the crimes of the Putin regime and a lot of [Putin’s] people would lose their money and their freedom. There are lots of people in the opposition who are all plausible replacements for the Russian government, but anyone who's plausible is either in jail, in exile or dead.’

For Brenton, it’s clear the administration is doing everything it can to eliminate any credible opposition ahead of the elections. ‘We’ve seen this quite unprecedented [cracking] down on opposition figures – the Navalny story, of course, opposition publications of one sort or another, and in every way a prefixing of the election’, he says. ‘This is not new, but it is much more intense than anything I've seen before and anything that Russia has experienced in the last 30 years.’

Undesirable elements

The message has been made loud and clear, even to Russian dissidents who reside abroad. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of the Yukos oil company, is no exception. Khodorkovsky spent ten years in a Russian prison on charges including tax evasion and fraud – which he denies and says were politically motivated – until he was suddenly pardoned by the Russian government and released in December 2013.

Maria Logan acted as legal counsel to the Kremlin critic during his incarceration. Since his release, she has been at the forefront of several of Khodorkovsky’s initiatives designed to uphold and defend human rights and the rights of civil society in Russia.

The House of the Government of the Russian Federation (White House) in Moscow, Russia. Shutterstock.com/sar14ev

The House of the Government of the Russian Federation (White House) in Moscow, Russia. Shutterstock.com/sar14ev

However, Logan says, the situation in the country has become increasingly untenable since 2012 when the government passed a law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as foreign agents. Since then, the law has been steadily expanded to cover other groups such as foreign-funded media organisations and prohibits Russian citizens and organisations from receiving funds or participating in any activity carried out by foreign organisations that the Russian government deems undesirable. Prosecutors have also been granted extrajudicial powers to declare international organisations ‘undesirable’.

‘In our community in Russia, everyone is just scared’, she says. ‘Now there are serious consequences for being a foreign agent and continuing to be supported by foreigners. It’s very difficult for a lot of organisations that I talk to – they are just so frustrated.’

Logan says the legislation has left many people in the dark. ‘It's just so abusive and repressive in nature that you never know whether they're going to prosecute you or the business or whether you can be off the radar and you can continue to do what you do’, she says. ‘There's just this very bad atmosphere as to what you can or cannot do.’

In April 2017, Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia (Otkrytaya Rossiya) pro-democracy movement inside Russia was declared ‘undesirable’, running the risk of its members being on the receiving end of severe administrative and criminal penalties, including up to six years’ imprisonment. Consequently, in May 2021 the organisation took the difficult decision to self-liquidate. Open Russia, along with its wider network, was dismantled and project work and resources were reallocated elsewhere.

Logan says the risks became simply too great. ‘If you have people who previously worked under the Open Russia umbrella, if they continue to work in any other organisation, in the government’s view they are still linked to that undesirable organisation’, she says. ‘Under the law, they can prosecute them, starting with administrative cases and then moving to criminal cases. We thought there is no reason to risk people's lives unnecessarily and send them to prison for nothing just because they work within the organisational structure.’

However, the toll that these increasingly repressive measures have taken over the past decade is clear in Logan’s voice. ‘Essentially, organisation-building is no longer available in Russia’, she says wearily. ‘We were well aware that you can no longer build political parties and that parties were no longer an effective tool inside authoritarian regimes, but at least we thought we could build horizontal networks and still have some kind of horizontal structure in place, with offices and or branches in the regions or even an online network. That’s no longer a possibility. You can no longer spend money or be supported financially because the government attacks activists and they do it pretty quickly and efficiently.’

As an indicator of just how fast things can change, less than 48 hours after Logan spoke to Global Insight the Russian Prosecutor General's Office labelled four more European civil society and education foundations associated with Khodorkovsky as ‘undesirable’. As of 30 June 2021, the Khodorkovsky Foundation, its subsidiary the Oxford Russia Fund, which provides undergraduate scholarships for young Russians, the Future of Russia Trust philanthropic fund and the French group European Choice, were all blacklisted.

No dissenting voices, even lawyers, are immune. On 18 July, Komanda 29 (Team 29), which has been acting as legal counsel to Navalny and the FBK, suddenly announced it was self-liquidating over fears its members and supporters could face prosecution after Russia’s telecommunications watchdog blocked its website for allegedly publishing content from an ‘undesirable’ organisation. Ivan Pavlov, the group’s founder, was detained on 30 April. He is being investigated over claims he disclosed classified information related to his client Ivan Safronov – the former Russian military industry journalist accused of treason.

The situation looks just as bleak for media pluralism in the country. US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) acts as a key counterweight to Russian state-owned media, but the broadcaster faces fines in the millions of dollars over its refusal to brand all its digital and video content as the product of a ‘foreign agent’.

In April, the organisation called on the European Court of Human Rights to grant interim measures to block Russia from enforcing the penalties. Nine of its outlets have already been designated as foreign agents, but the platform claims this is ‘an attempt to suppress free speech and the human rights of the Russian people’ and is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Moscow is a signatory.

Arapova, who is representing Radio Liberty at a domestic level, says the situation is only getting worse. ‘After Radio Liberty, we’ve seen other independent and critical media voices also designated as foreign agents’, she says. ‘We expect there will be many more. This will decrease information pluralism in the country and put additional pressure on journalists.’

For now, at least, Logan says she and her colleagues will continue as best they can to offer support both to those still in the country and those who have been forced to flee to other parts of Europe. ‘If you follow what's happened to Navalny's organisation, we're in a better place because the law on undesirable organisation currently carries a maximum sentence of six years’, she says. ‘The sentence for extremism is much higher – that’s an automatic ban. We are still providing legal defence to people who want to continue to raise their voices, such as bloggers and activists.’

Costs and consequences

Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation continues to provoke alarm among leading global powers and the international community. In March, the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials over Navalny’s poisoning and detention. The subject was even broached during a face-to-face meeting in June between President Biden and President Putin in Geneva.

Tensions have been heightened between the two countries after the US accused Russia of interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and conducting several high-profile cyberattacks on US government entities and companies. As Biden and Putin met in Geneva, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were also making efforts to reduce EU–Russia tensions by calling on the bloc to pursue a policy of closer engagement with the Kremlin.

Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, says the EU has grown progressively tough on Russia since the country’s annexation of Crimea. ‘The EU has renewed heavy sanctions against Russia since 2014. This includes Russia’s exclusion from the G8, stopping the process of Russia’s accession to the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and the International Energy Agency as well as the suspension of regular EU-Russia bilateral summits.’

However, Ramberg says the EU’s approach to engaging with Russia to date has been ‘selective’ at best. She stresses that the bloc can’t simply look on as all human rights are simply eroded in the country. ‘The ongoing developments in Russia with regard to the limitations on fundamental freedoms and the shrinking space for civil society and the treatment of Navalny deserve constant attention’, she says. ‘The 2018 election gave Putin his fourth term as president. The constitutional change in 2020 will allow him to stay in power even after his mandate has ended in 2024. Even more worrying is, of course, the constitutional changes stating the supremacy of Russian law over international agreements ratified by Russia and over the rulings of international courts.’

The ongoing developments in Russia with regard to the limitations on fundamental freedoms and the shrinking space for civil society and the treatment of Navalny deserve constant attention

Anne Ramberg
Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Institute

Browder agrees there needs to be greater consequences to keep the country’s government in check. ‘There's a misconception amongst Western politicians that somehow we can affect Putin's behaviour’, he says. ‘All of his malicious activities in the West are not provoked by us, they're provoked by his own fear of losing power in Russia. We have no control over him. All we can do is contain him and create consequences.’

Browder has spent over a decade campaigning to convince governments to enact legislation enabling them to go after the ‘bad guys from Russia’. The Magnitsky Act, a law originally adopted in the US by President Barack Obama in 2012, is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian jail. Browder says the Magnitsky Act, which has now been passed by six countries and the EU, is key to eradicating the kleptocracy that continues to be the scourge of Russian society. ‘So far there has not been a dedicated policy towards going after those people’, he says. ‘But if we went after Putin's elite who have money, that would be a truly appropriate response to these malicious actions that Putin and his government have taken.’

James Lamond is Director of the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and an expert on US–Russia relations. He says sanctioning oligarch wealth is one of the biggest tools in the diplomatic toolbox that has not yet been deployed fully against Russia. ‘Oligarchs owe their wealth largely to the relationship with the state and they're therefore beholden to the state and often work on behalf of the state’, says Lamond.

He says targeted sanctions have the potential to dismantle the power structure altogether. ‘The idea of sanctioning the wealthy in the West is to take a circuit breaker to that mutually beneficial system. If he can't protect them and their assets, then they will have less of a need for him. That's where you start to drive a wedge between that political structure and can incentivise better behaviour. [They’ll learn that] if you cross this red line, there will be a cost.’

Pandemic, Putin and the polls

In early July, as Russia was already in the throes of the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic (See box: Russia’s Covid-19 crisis) the country’s election watchdog announced that the parliamentary elections would be staggered over three days in September to limit the spread of virus. The election watchdog has been testing an e-voting system, which has sparked fears internationally that votes could be too easily manipulated. The Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) has already confirmed it will be rolled out to six Russian regions, including Moscow, in time for the upcoming elections.

It seems unlikely that the pandemic will put a dampener on campaigning by the powers that be. Although public support for the government is waning in Russia, support for Putin remains strong. Polling by the independent Levada Center revealed in June that the president’s popularity remained largely unchanged at 66 per cent.

Brenton says the explanation is simple: ‘Putin, in handling the coronavirus crisis, has been very careful to place it in other hands and only to pop up when, for example, he can announce a magnificent new Russian vaccine, but not to be very involved or involved at all in the day-to-day handling of the crisis.’

As well as distancing himself from the government’s shortcomings, Brenton says Putin’s longstanding supporters – often older and rural voters – rely on the certainty provided by his leadership. ‘They probably regard him as deeply corrupt’, he says, ‘but he has given them a relatively safe and secure way of life, which given the upsets that Russian history has experienced over the last 30 years or so, is a good thing. Russians don't much like change, let alone violent change. Putin has avoided that for them. When you ask the Russians what they want from their government, what they want is security – it’s order. They're much more interested in that actually than in freedom. And Putin has supplied them with order’.

Poll predictions suggest the ruling party is gearing up for defeat at the ballot box – a factor which Brenton says will concern Putin but is unlikely to threaten his leadership. ‘That would mean that an important instrument of Putin's control over the country would be removed, because he depends upon having a poodle parliament’, he says. ‘But the fact is that Putin himself looks to me to be pretty invulnerable. Unless things go very badly wrong one way or another. Whatever happens in the elections Putin will still be there afterwards.’

Logan believes the authorities will continue to use repressive measures, both in the run-up to the elections and beyond, to stamp out dissent. ‘After the Navalny story, I don't think there are any more illusions about the repressive nature of this regime – a regime that uses chemical weapons to try to silence critics’, she says. ’People understand what's happening in Russia. It’s not a democracy. It's a kleptocracy. It's authoritarianism. It’s a dictatorship. It’s just the level of degree that people can disagree on. No matter what happens, they will get through. They have plenty of tools in their arsenal to get the results they want. They will get there one way or the other.’

Ruth Green is Multimedia Journalist at the IBA and can be contacted at ruth.green@int-bar.org

Russia’s Covid-19 crisis

Over the past year, the Russian government has basked in the purported success of its fight against Covid-19. In August 2020, President Putin proudly announced that Russia had become the first country in the world to register a Covid-19 vaccine – Sputnik V – and the government embarked on a mass vaccination drive in early December.

However, the rising death toll and rapid surge in cases tells a different story. By mid-July, the national death toll from coronavirus-linked causes ranked the country fifth in the world at almost 150,000. Just under six million positive cases of the virus have been reported since the pandemic began. And these are just what has been reported.

Despite having its home-grown vaccine, Russia is experiencing many of the same problems as the other countries battling against the virus. ‘Although we have the vaccines at hand, the challenges posed by Covid-19 on Russian society are the same as the challenges posed by Covid-19 on society globally’, says Ilona Zekely, a partner at Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners (EPAM) in Moscow. ‘There is either a lack of awareness or scarcity of supplies’, says Zekely, who is also the Human Rights Officer of the IBA's European Regional Forum.

Zekely admits she has been lucky. In December, EPAM became the first law firm in Russia to support universal vaccination and offered vaccinations to its 500-strong office. ‘We have achieved collective immunity long ago and can represent our clients without any limitations’, she says.

It’s mandatory to wear masks in crowded public areas and failure to comply is a finable offence. However, Russia has eschewed most other restrictions typically imposed by other countries. The authorities imposed only one nationwide six-week lockdown at the start of the pandemic in 2020. What’s more, a disastrous government-backed PR campaign has completely failed to win public trust in the Sputnik V vaccine.

The government was banking on 60 per cent of its population being fully vaccinated by 1 September. However, this target has been dramatically revised down to 30–35 per cent amid poor uptake fuelled by government mistrust and vaccine conspiracy theories.

These factors have been largely to blame for Russia’s growing number of cases, says Galina Arapova, a leading human rights lawyer and director of the Mass Media Defence Centre in Voronezh. ‘People suspect that there might be some kind corruption behind it’, she says. ‘They don't want to do what they've been asked by the government unless it's obligatory. People also don't trust that the vaccine is safe enough because they sped up the process of testing.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures. By June, Russia was gripped by a third wave of the virus. Local authorities in four Russian regions have already made it mandatory for workers in retail, education and other service sectors to receive vaccines. No doubt more will follow.