Russia’s opposition activists and rights groups had hoped the Kremlin would ease off on a crackdown on dissent, independent media outlets and civic organizations once the elections for the Duma, the lower house of parliament, concluded last month.
But there’s little sign of that happening, they say.
The Justice Ministry has added nearly two dozen activists and journalists, an independent rights watchdog and a news site to its Soviet-style blacklist of designated “foreign agents.” The moniker can mean the death knell for a media outlet as it prompts nervous advertisers to pull out. Both Russians and non-Russians can be branded as foreign agents.
“Russian authorities have intensified their efforts to silence independent voices,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. The rights group says the authorities are using “a battery of laws that allow even greater infringements on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”
In the runup to Russia’s parliamentary elections in September, which saw the ruling United Russia party retain its majority in the 450-seat Duma, opposition leaders and critics of President Vladimir Putin complained of an intensification of a campaign of repression that saw an exodus of dissidents.
The Kremlin barred most genuinely independent candidates — first and foremost supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — from running in the polls.
Last week, Russia’s domestic spy agency added to its list of topics and issues that can earn the moniker of “foreign agent.” The Federal Security Service listed 60 non-classified topics, many related to the armed forces, including military procurement and soldiers' morale, that can be exploited by foreign enemies. The topics include gathering or publishing information about corruption within the military as well as Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.
The expansion of the list will add to the risks for journalists trying to report on Russia’s military, rights lawyers complain.
In an interview with the Reuters news agency after the elections, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the authorities would continue to take a tough line against what he termed “the non-systemic opposition.” He said opponents had “crossed a red line a while ago.” And, he added, “What they were doing was using provocations and all methods to try to stir up social unrest.”
Peskov said, “Naturally, any authorities would adopt as tough a position as possible to that. The aim is to maintain stability in society. There is no place for lawlessness and we are ready to force people to obey the law. This is not connected to the Duma elections. This is our line and it will continue to be our line.”
People designated as foreign agents can be fined and jailed for up to five years for failing to meet various administrative requirements, including filing regular financial reports.
They are also required to add this statement to anything they publish: “This message is created and/or distributed by a foreign media outlet carrying out the functions of a foreign agent, and/or by a Russian legal entity carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.”
Russia's law on foreign agents was initially introduced in 2012 but has been beefed up and amended several times since. Last month, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global network of 50 independent media outlets, announced it was halting operations in Russia in order to protect its Russian journalist collaborators.
More than 70 individuals are on the foreign agent blacklist, nearly one-third of them added since the parliamentary elections. The most recent additions include Sergey Smirnov and Pyotr Verzilov, respectively the editor-in-chief of the independent news site Mediazona and its publisher, Zona Prava; a rights organization founded by the Pussy Riot protest punk rock band to monitor abuses in Russia’s prison system; and several members of the election watchdog Golos.
Three members of the feminist Pussy Riot were jailed after staging what authorities considered a sacrilegious and unauthorized performance in 2012 inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
The incident, which gained the group international notoriety, was billed as an anti-Putin demonstration. Putin was prime minister at the time.
The Mediazona news site published Tuesday three videos obtained by an NGO, Gulagu.net, showing inmates being beaten and tortured by guards in several prisons across the country, including in the city of Saratov. Gulagu.net’s website was blocked by state media watchdog Roskomnadzor earlier this year following requests from Russia’s security agencies.
“Russian authorities have amassed a wide array of tools to intimidate, marginalize, and punish human rights defenders,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
HRW has raised concerns also about a crackdown on two Russian rights groups, both of which have won cases against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, and a migrant rights campaigner, Valentina Chupik, an Uzbek barred last month from re-entering Russia, where she has been a resident since 2005.
Border officials handed Chupik a notice saying she would be prohibited from entering the country for 30 years.
“Whether the moves against these three are coordinated or not, they are certainly consistent with the authorities’ wider efforts to stifle effective critics, in particular groups that work to rectify human rights abuses,” says Williamson.
A group of 45 Western countries demanded Tuesday that Russia provide urgent answers about the poisoning of Kremlin critic Navalny. Western nations say Navalny was poisoned in Russia with a Soviet-era nerve agent in August last year. He was treated in Germany before returning to Russia, where he’s now in jail.
Moscow has 10 days to respond to the questions posed by the EU, the United States, Canada and Australia, under the rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). “It is essential that Russia sets out in detail the steps taken to investigate and shed light on the use of a chemical weapon on its territory," said the statement by the 45 countries.
Moscow denies any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Navalny was jailed on his return to Russia on fraud charges, which his supporters say were trumped up. He is being held at Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov in the Vladimir region of Russia.
His prison sentence is due to end in mid-2023, but Russian authorities have launched a new case against Navalny and other directors of his Anti-Corruption Fund and he could face new extremism charges, each of which carries a possible sentence of 10 years.
“The organization that I founded specializes in fighting against corruption. And this, evidently, is enough to make it extremist in the eyes of my country’s authorities,” Navalny said Wednesday in a speech delivered for him at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.