Putin’s Legal Crackdown on Civil Society

January 13, 2015
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Moscow, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011, signaling growing outrage over Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

With his hand resting atop a copy of Russia’s constitution as he was sworn in for a third term as president, Vladimir Putin promised to “respect and protect human and civil rights and freedoms.”

But in the two years since, the Russian president has overseen an accelerated crackdown on dissent and opposition. A series of recently enacted laws have made it harder for Russians to assemble, to publish criticism on the Internet, and to carry out political or human rights advocacy, according to analysts and human rights groups.

“He’s a lawyer,” Leon Aron, a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, explained to FRONTLINE. “So he generally tends to avoid these crude, typically authoritarian, thuggish methods where people come in, break equipment and beat people up. He tries to do it as a slow strangulation — but very fatal — through a series of laws.”

A Costly Protest

December 2011 saw widespread mass protests in Moscow and other Russian cities, sparked by Putin’s announcement earlier that fall that he intended to run for a third term as Russia’s president, as well as by allegations of rigged parliamentary elections. Tens of thousands of Russians of all political persuasions gathered in the capital chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.”

“The Kremlin, and Putin personally, were quite frightened by the public protests of late 2011 and early 2012,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, told FRONTLINE. “As soon as Putin returned to the Kremlin he tried to do his utmost to make sure people were strongly discouraged from taking part in such protests.”

Less than a month after Putin’s inauguration, Russia’s parliament passed a bill raising the fines and penalties for taking part in unauthorized protests to 300,000 rubles (more than $9,000 at the time). Organizers of unsanctioned rallies could be fined up to a million rubles.

Putin’s own human rights adviser reportedly asked the president to veto the bill, but Putin signed it into law days before a planned protest, justifying it as a bulwark against radicalism.

The number of public protests dropped by half in the following year, according to a report by Amnesty International, which noted that “Spontaneous protest has been virtually outlawed.”

In July 2014, Putin signed a new law that raised the fines for protesters caught participating in unauthorized demonstrations multiple times a year to between 600,000 and 1 million rubles ($17,124-$28,540 at the time) — a cost that rights groups said was prohibitively high for the average Russian citizen to pay. Protesters could also be held criminally accountable and face up to five years of forced labor or prison.

Cracking Down on NGOs

Putin began tightening conditions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during his second term as president. In 2007, he described NGOs that received grants from foreign governments as “jackals.” In 2011, he compared election monitors who received foreign funding to Judas.

In 2012, Putin signed what would become known as the “foreign agent law,” which requires NGOs that received funding from outside Russia to register as “foreign agents” and be subject to mandatory audits. Failure to register could result in a maximum fine of 300,000 rubles for individuals and 500,000 rubles for organizations.

The law also required NGOs to submit reports on their funds and resources on a quarterly basis, and reports on their activities and personnel every six months. Failure to submit such reports or providing “incomplete” information could result in fines of 30,000 rubles for individuals and 10 times that amount for legal entities. Individuals and organizations could also be fined 300,000 and 500,000 rubles respectively if they published or distributed materials without noting that they had been published by a “foreign agent.”

The Kremlin cast the law as a way to prevent “foreign meddling” in Russia’s domestic politics and increase transparency. “Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs — any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners — is unacceptable,” Putin said in a February 2013 speech to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB.

But Russia observers say the law was intended to marginalize and demonize NGOs in the eyes of Russians. “In the Russian language, in the Russian context, foreign agent means foreign spy, there is no other interpretation,” Lokshina said.

“The intent was to create a sense of fear and kind of warn off any kind of civil society,” said Aron, who described the law as one of the most damaging passed in recent years.

As many as 2,000 NGOs were raided by government authorities in the spring of 2013. Putin said the inspections were to check “whether the groups’ activities conform with their declared goals.”

Among the groups targeted was Golos, an election watchdog that tracked instances of fraud during the 2011 elections. In April 2013, it was fined for failing to declare itself a foreign agent. The offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were also raided, along with Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations. Within a year of the law being enacted, at least 10 NGOs had been taken to court for failure to register.

In May 2014, the law was amended to give the Ministry of Justice the power to label NGOs “foreign agents” if they didn’t register themselves. Twenty-eight of the 30 NGOs currently listed as foreign agents were added by the ministry.

A Shrinking Independent Media

During his first two terms, Putin worked to increase state control over the media, bringing the television empires of two of Russia’s biggest media tycoons — Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky — under the Kremlin’s control.

By early 2014, several Russian media outlets saw an editorial change of guard to more Kremlin-friendly leaders, and only one independent television station remained, Dozhd (Rain) TV. The channel’s editor-in-chief won a Committee to Protect Journalists award last November, but in Russia, the channel is a pariah, with its studio now located in a tiny apartment in Moscow.

Adding to Dozhd’s troubles is a law that bans advertising on private cable and satellite channels. It was passed by the Russian parliament last July and takes effect this year. The heads of several channels wrote a letter to the government, explaining that “excluding the advertising model will place about 150 [out of 270 cable and satellite channels] on the brink of survival,” according to The Moscow Times.

During a news conference in December, Putin said the law’s purpose was to even the playing field between the cable and satellite channels, and federal free-to-air stations.

In October, Putin signed another law that would limit foreign ownership in media companies to 20 percent by the end of 2016. It also prohibited international organizations, foreign citizens or Russians with dual citizenship from owning mass media outlets. The law will most likely impact the two biggest independent media outlets in Russia: Forbes’ Russian edition and Vedomosti, a joint publication of the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.

“We understand very well that those who own information own the world,” Vadim Dengin, the lawmaker who wrote the bill, said during debate before the law’s approval. “When foreigners come here to make money and then actively influence the media market and use it for their own benefit, at this moment, I want to say that I am ready to close down Russia and ensure its security.”

Vedomosti’s editor in chief, Tatiana Lysova, said, “We do not report to the Russian authorities, so that is why we are a potential danger in their mind, a potential enemy.”

Regulating an “Island of Freedom”

Before 2012, Russia saw almost no Internet censorship, according to Eva Galperin, global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Internet “was a place where people debated politics with great vigor, and there was a very well-developed civil society,” she told FRONTLINE.

Lokshina described it as an “island of freedom” in Russia’s media landscape.

In the months leading up to Putin’s re-election, opposition forces used websites and blogs to organize protests and expose alleged corruption.

The Russian government went on the attack, with Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of the FSB, blaming western security services for creating “new technologies” to “create and maintain constant tension.”

“Society must defend itself,” Smirnov said in an April 2012 speech. “If the enemy uses ‘dirty’ technology, we need to purge the space from such activity in some way.”

Within months, Putin signed the “Law on the Protection of Children from Information Detrimental to Their Health and Development.” It called for the creation of a registry — or blacklist — of sites containing information deemed harmful to children.

Reporters Without Borders criticized the legislation, saying the procedure that could lead to a website being blocked was “extremely vague.” Russia’s telecom minister, Nikolai Nikiforov, tried to reassure critics, saying the government didn’t intend to “enforce censorship.” Websites would “be blocked only if they refuse to follow Russian laws, which is unlikely, in my opinion,” he said.

The registry is maintained by a federal agency, Roskomnadzor.

“Roskomnadzor actually has no method of appeal, and no real oversight,” Galperin said. “So really, they can block what they want, for whatever reason they want.”

In December 2013, Putin signed another law that would allow Roskomnadzor to block sites that carry “extremist” content or promote mass rioting within 24 hours and without a court order. It came into effect last February.

A month later, three opposition media sites and a blog maintained by opposition leader Alexei Navalny were blocked in accordance with the law for encouraging “illegal activities and participation in public events held in violation of the established order.”

“They’ve taken down a number of Russian political sites, particularly sites belonging to members of the political opposition and independent news sites, especially when the news features points of view that aren’t in keeping with the Putin regime,” Galperin said.

In May, Putin signed another law that would require bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Roskomnadzor. They would also have to reveal their identities, and verify the accuracy of the information they published.

The law has already compelled some tech companies in Russia to change their policies in order to comply. The most recent example was Intel, which shut down its Russian-language developer forums, redirecting users to third-party sites or Intel’s English-language forums. The company explicitly said the changes were a result of “new laws in Russia.”

The cumulative effect of all these laws, according to experts, has been to create an environment hostile for activists, critics of the government and independent journalists.

But some, such as Human Rights Watch’s Lokshina, say that the government’s moves may end up being counter-productive. “While the number of people who are ready to speak to criticize the Kremlin at this time has gone down … it’s very much like a pot,” she told FRONTLINE. “It might just bubble over, it might just explode at any given moment.”

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