Russia’s Bad Example




For decades Russia remained a country without an ideology to export. Now Putin’s Russia has realized that it can capitalize on its foreign policy goals of sowing democratic discord and countering an universal human rights discourse by disseminating, or at least promoting its unique system of suppression of opposition, NGOs and media, according to a new report.

Since the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency in 2000, Russian authorities have been continually reducing the public and legal space for civil society institutions, note Melissa Hooper, Director of Europe and Eurasia Policy at Human Rights First, and Grigory Frolov, Director of Development at Free Russia Foundation. However, since the beginning of his third term in 2012 the number of laws and policies restricting freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, the right to liberty and personal and information security has dramatically increased. Predictably, the effectiveness of these new laws, together with a very limited reaction by the international community, set a bad, but popular example for other authoritarian-leaning regimes, they write in Russia’s Bad Example, a new report from Human Rights First:

This example was followed not only by other post-Soviet countries traditionally influenced by Moscow, but also by the Eurosceptic governments of several Eastern European countries, and a diverse range of countries worldwide, … Legitimized by reference to national security threats by foreign governments, Russian-style anti-NGO laws (or “foreign agents” laws), and laws suppressing freedom of assembly and expression are being widely discussed and implemented over protests by pro-democracy activists, human rights groups and NGOs. Legitimized by reference to protection of children, anti-LGBT propaganda laws and other forms of “traditional values” legislation are being passed over the objections of anti-xenophobia and minority community protests.

These legislative and policy developments threaten the global state of democracy and human rights, and merit a clear response from Western democracies and the United Nations (UN), Hopper and Frolov contend:

  • The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) should consistently support civil society within these countries, by for example encouraging and supporting international coalitions of NGOs, recognizing that civil societies in closing societies are attempting to move their countries toward more democratic and human rights based norms;
  • The US and other UN countries should work together to oppose these trends as a global coalition and have a common strategy to deal with undemocratic countries; for example, this could include giving NGOs a larger role and more official status in the UN;
  • The US and other democratic states should recognize that the philosophy underlying these restrictions on civil society, and its assertion of norms in opposition to the idea of a universal human rights philosophy, is itself in danger of spreading, and should act strategically in its prevention by highlighting their own observance of these norms, incorporating them into the Sustainable Development Goals, and through other mainstreaming methods.

From the standpoint of responsibility, blame, or, ultimately, ethics, the question of intent – i.e., whether those in the Kremlin actually want bad things to happen to their critics – is largely unknowable and in many ways irrelevant, analyst Anna Arutunyan writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Putin presides over a country where such things happen and where law enforcement fails to punish the perpetrators, and it is he that is morally responsible. But the question of intent does matter if one is seeking to identify a coherent policy, because a coherent policy can be changed at will with varying degrees of effort. The current Kremlin may very well benefit from a climate of fear that helps keep the masses in line, and that may be the reason it not only tolerates but promotes this climate. Yet to a large extent many of the forces that perpetuate it are not exactly under the Kremlin’s control. Repressions and human rights abuses in Russia, in other words, happen for other, myriad reasons besides Kremlin policy and those reasons will still need to be addressed, no matter who sits in Moscow. 

We need the West to stand with us in solidarity for the cause of Russian democracy, says Mikhail Kasyanov (left), the leader of the Russian democratic coalition Parnas. Hold Russia to its commitment to democracy and human rights. Expand the reach of the Magnitsky Act. Visa and financial sanctions that target Russians for human-rights abuses are principled, and they work. New targets should include the state-sponsored propagandists who hounded and smeared Boris [Nemtsov] as a traitor. This continues to this day against me and others in the opposition, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

The world’s problem is not with Russia, but with Mr. Putin. My values and principles remain fixed on a vision of a free and democratic Russia. We Russians see ourselves as part of Europe and look forward to an improved relationship with the West. I believe this can be achieved, and will continue to work for that, in spite of everything.


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