04.02.2020

Overview of political repression in Russia (July – December, 2019)

Political persecution is one of the most efficient tools to ensure stability of anti-democratic regimes. Generally, repression on grounds of political persuasion implicates preventive measures used by an authoritarian state to put curbs on the growth of any independent civic initiatives and movements that are perceived as real threats to the existing political order. It is clear that authoritarian states resort to repressive policies when there appear and grow well-organized protests with clear messages. Therefore, the scale and intensity of political repression is largely determined by the level of organization of civil society, the scale and activity of its actions aimed at defending  civil and social rights and freedoms. But the current political regime in Russia, as it has been repeatedly noted, is not only capable of adapting to potential challenges to its stability, but also shows efficiency in using different tools and methods to restrain political engagement of its citizens, both adopted from the times of the Soviet Union or newly introduced to fit the ever-changing environment. That is why the overall intensity of repression does not decrease much even during periods of relatively low civil activity: the repressive machine works constantly and follows its own logic. This machine inherently represents interests of various groups and, thus, is very inertive. The atmosphere of fear the ongoing repressive governmental policies creates also adds to lowering political engagement.  

For the period observed we fixed cases of political repression in more than 50 regions of Russia.  The share of Moscow in the total number of cases observed varies from 25% to 43%, depending on the month.  The share of top 7 regions in our monthly list of political repression varies from 49% to 64%, depending on the month. Other than Moscow and Saint- Petersburg, the provinces of Arkhangelsk, Sverdlovsk, Omsk and Yaroslavl, Krasnodar and the Republic of Bashkiria appeared more frequently on our monthly list of political repression.

The summary of political repression in Russia for the period from July to December, 2019 is neither complete, nor fully consistent . Many lawsuits are complex and are hard to analyze. But we hope that this observation would offer our readers a clearer picture of what is going on in Russia in terms of political persecution. 

Key Developments

  • Summer election campaigns across Russia, including Moscow and Saint- Petersburg led to massive repression, including unprecedented violence of law enforcement officers, detentions and arrests during rallies in Moscow in mid-July and early August, 2019. Thousands of Moscovites took to the streets to support independent candidates who were barred from running for the Moscow City Council. Subsequently, a number of politically-motivated criminal lawsuits were initiated by the Russian authorities. The criminal lawsuits brought about against protesters are referred to as the “Moscow Case”. 
  • Yakutia- based shaman Alexander Gabyshev initiated a campaign to force President Putin to step down. He started his walking journey from Yakutia, a region in the Russian Far East, with Moscow as his final destination. Disproportionate reaction of  law enforcement agencies to his campaign led to mass protests in Ulan-Ude, capital of Buryatia. Peaceful protests were dispersed, police acted violently. Some of the participants were detained, criminal or administrative lawsuits were initiated against some of them;
  • The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) led by Alexey Navalny as well as his regional offices were under harsh attacks. Authorities used a range of tools (raids, searches, detentions and interrogations) to hinder FBK’s operations. Overall, FBK’s offices in more than 40 Russian regions were under pressure;
  • Introduction of new repressive laws that allow authorities to label individuals who receive foreign funds as foreign agents.  Lawyers, human rights activists, politicians and public figures refer to this new law as “which hunt”. 

The main repressive tools used to silence dissenters

Restriction of Freedom of Assembly

The Russian authorities restrict the right to peaceful gatherings and it remains the major tool to keep in check growing discontent.The Russian Constitution provides for protection of the right to gather peacefully without acquiring any permission from the authorities. However, all protests that are not permitted by the authorities are regarded by them as unsanctioned and dispersed with the use of violence. In modern Russia, even a one-man protest is potentially risky. Though, there does not exist any legal requirement to obtain a permission for one-man protests, on some occasions protesters might be detained. 

Unlawful detentions during unsanctioned peaceful protests constitute the majority of cases of political persecution in our observation. The share of unlawful detentions in our monthly observations varies from 17% to 25%. 

In the second half of 2019, authorities introduced a novelty to their standard toolbox of repressive policies- rolling administrative detention (short jail terms) of activists in Moscow. Ilya Yashin, prominent leader of the summer protests and the chair of the municipality “Krasnoselsky” in Moscow ,  was held in custody for 50 days. Each time his 10-day detention was prolonged on no reasonable legal basis. 

 Konstantin Jankauskas and Julia Galyamina, who as Ilya Yashin were barred from running for the Moscow’s legislature were held in custody for 40 and 30 days, respectively. They all were charged with making public calls to take part in unsanctioned protests.  

Restriction of free speech

In our monthly observation the share of cases of restriction of free speech in Russia varies from 13% to 18% in the second half of 2019. Restriction of free speech is one of the most used tool to silence dissenters overstripped only by restrictions of peaceful gatherings and direct political repression (detentions, arrests, etc.). Independent Russian journalists and bloggers, performers, foreign media outlets and art exhibitions have become the main targets of repressive policies of the government.

  • In September, 2019 in the wake of the “Moscow case” (a series of lawsuits against activists who took part or supported summer protests in Moscow) Deutsche Welle, German international broadcaster, was targeted for alleged interference in Russian domestic affairs  as the authorities did not like how DW covered the protests. Associated Press correspondent faced troubles because of “improper interview” he took. The threats came from the Central Election Commission of Russia;
  • The art exhibition  “Autumn Pahana” in Moscow was disrupted by police, the play for children based on “Cipollino” fairy-tale was banned and “Diletant”, monthly historic magazine, faced troubles because of its cover featuring a caricature of Stalin and Hitler;
  • Samara-based journalist was fired for his satire stand-up performance on censorship; Moscow-based reporter of the regional television company was forced to leave her position after her critical question at the press conference of Vladimir Putin. An environmental activist from Krasnodar was fined for his interview with “MBH-media”, media outlet controlled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Karim Yamadayev, blogger from Tatarstan, was detained and interrogated upon the publication of the first episode of his satire YouTube series “Judge Gramm” that featured court trials of top Russian officials and businessmen, including Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov and Igor Sechin. 

These are only few examples of how freedom of speech is oppressed in Russia. Other restrictive measures include denial of access to open court hearings, bans on taking photos of certain public government buildings, etc. 

Restriction of Religious Freedom

This paragraph covers two major cases of persecution on grounds of religious beliefs. The main targets are the Muslim group “Hizb ut-Tahrir” and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian denomination. Both organizations are banned in Russia.

Lawsuits against the members of these religious movements have been long ago initiated across Russia and in the Crimea. 

As part of the umbrella  “Jehovah’s Witnesses Case”, mass raids and detentions were conducted. New suspects were found in the Crimea, in the Russian cities of Kaluga, Perm, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Yoshkar-Ola, Sochi, Kursk, Norilsk, Blagoveshchensk, Achinsk, Smolensk, Birobidzhan, Petrozavodsk and in the provinces of Stavropol, Lipetsk, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, Murmansk and Vologda . One of the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Tomsk was sentenced to a six-year real prison term.  Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses communities in Penza and Saratov were also sentenced to real prison terms.

Under “Hizb-ut-Tahrir Case”, members of the Muslim group based in Yalta, Sevastopol and Kazan were sentenced to real prison terms. The military court  of Chelyabinsk sentenced a disabled member of “Hizb-ut-Tahrir Case” to a 11-year real prison term. Massive raids, and detentions were carried out in Moscow, Tyumen, Kazan and Chelyabinsk.

Other forms of political repression

Other repressive practices in Russia include threats, expulsion from state-controlled universities, dismissals, pressure on relatives of dissenters, fines, prison torture.

The main targets of repression

In 2019 the main targets of political repression were Anti-Corruption Foundation led by Alexei Navalny (see details below) and a number of NGOs. Russian Historical, Educational and Human Rights Society Memorial was fined for not having put a label “Foreign Agent” on its publications. The total amount of fines has reached 4 mln. Russian roubles (appx. $62,000) by the end of the year.

In November, 2019 Russia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Justice Ministry lawsuit demanding dissolution of Lev Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights”, one of the oldest NGOs in Russia. 

During  the observed period, Andrey Mayakov, deputy Chairman of the “Committee for Civil Rights” was detained; Moscow City Court ruled to dissolve the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North/Russian Indigenous Training Center (CSIPN/RITC). Some other regional NGOs experienced pressure. 

In October, 2019, President Putin overhauled the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, removing several members who voiced their criticism of the government and replacing its head, Mikhail Fedorov, with a TV presenter Valery Fadeev. 

Major Lawsuits

Moscow Case

The so-called “Moscow case”- a series of criminal lawsuits against protesters who took part in summer peaceful rallies in Moscow in support of independent candidates who were barred from running for Moscow’s legislature. Some of the defendants faced real prison terms. At the end of 2019, out of thirty individuals that were on trial, lawsuits against 8 defendants were closed, one defendant has a travel ban,  two were arrested in absentia and put on the international wanted list and 17 were sentenced to real prison terms on charges of the use of violence against law enforcement officials..Vladislav Sinitsa was sentenced to a 5-year prison term for a tweet and Konstantin Kotov for a 4-year in penal colony for participating in unsanctioned protests.

Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) Case

In early September, 2019  Russian security forces raided and searched FBK’s regional offices and homes of Foundation’s employess and activists in more than 40 Russian cities. The raids were conducted as part of a criminal money-laundering investigation.Russian authorities froze a slew of bank accounts linked to FBK, including those of activists to prevent the Foundation from receiving donations. 

In mid-October, 2019 the second wave of raids was carried out in 30 locations (FBK’s offices and the homes of FBK’s employees and activists) across Russia. Earlier in October the group led by Alexei Navalny  was labelled “foreign agent”. 

In an interview with the Guardian, Navalny said that the real reason for mass raids was the success of of the tactical voting. 

Lawsuit against Mark Galperin

On December 4, 2019  Reutov City Court sentenced Russian activist Mark Galperin to a-year-and-a- half real prison term on charges of calling for participation in peaceful protests. 

Case of Siberian Shaman

Alexander Gybashev, a Siberian shaman, was held by police on September, 19. He started his walking journey in March heading for Moscow to banish Vladimir Putin. He attempted to hike to Moscow for the second time in December, but  was detained and taken back to his hometown of Yakutsk. Authorities ordered Gybashev to remain in the city while his case is investigated.  

Other Cases

  • 4-year real prison terms for three activists from Rostov on fabricated charges of preparing mass riots;
  • Persecution of LGBT activists accused of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” and/or  “dissemination of pornography”. A trans woman received a three-year prison term for posting manga on social media. In Komsomolsk- on the Amur oppression of LGBT-activists is ongoing; 
  • Lawsuits opened under a new law that bans disrespectful online remarks about top Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin. On average, 5–8 new cases are opened each month on charges of disrespect for officials, mainly Vladimir Putin. The amount of fines imposed has reached 1,5 million roubles (appx. $23,500) by the end of the year;
  • In July, 2019 well-known human rights activists were detained on the Red Square while they paid tribute to Natalya Estemirova, Russian journalist and activist killed 10 years ago. In December, 2019 police detained in Moscow participants of the parents march who demanded release of their children who are held in custody for political reasons (“Network Case” and “New Greatness Case”).

Conclusions

  • The key factor that determines intensity of political repression are mass well-organized protests, especially during election campaigns;
  • All complex and well-known cases are ongoing and expanding with new suspects detained and put on trial. Examples include “Network Case”, “New Greatness Case”, “Hizb-ut-Tahrir Case” “Jehovah’s Witnesses Case”, “FBK Cas and others; 
  • The main rights restricted by authorities: freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly;
  • Authorities undermine financial base of dissenters through imposition of large fines, accounts freezes, seizure of equipment, etc .;
  • Dysfunctional judicial system, especially when it comes to politically motivated cases;
  • Introduction of new repressive legislation to keep in check dissenters and independent media outlets. 

Disclaimer

1.The overview was prepared as part of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom Fellowship Program and is based on monthly monitorings of political persecution for the period from July 1 to December 31, 2019;

2.The overview, as well as monitorings are neither fully accurate nor complete. They capture the main trends in political repression in Russia and cover most resonant cases;

3. All quantitative figures are approximations and show only general trends and correlations;

4. The overview features violations of human right in the Crimea, a peninsula that is currently under Russia’s control.