How a Nobel Peace Prize winner should approach Putin

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Union – winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – should take a strong stand against the ongoing destruction of civil society in Russia at the summit with Vladimir Putin,  write Adam Bodnar and Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska.

Adam Bodnar and Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska are lawyers at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

"On Friday, 21 December 2012, the Council of the European Union and Russia will hold a summit in Brussels. For both parties, this is a chance to discuss political and economic relations, as well as pressing energy issues. Successive summits are supposed to lead to the creation of a new bilateral agreement on enhanced co-operation between the EU and Russia.

The dialogue, which has been in progress since 2003, has proven quite successful with respect to the matters of economy, energy and visa regulations. It has failed, however, when it comes to the respect for human rights and the principles of democracy in Russia.

A year ago, before the EU-Russia summit in December, the “Greens” from the European Parliament emphasised in their statement the need to support civil society in Russia, especially the crowds of people who, before and after the presidential elections, poured out onto the streets of big cities.

Unfortunately, any substantial help from the EU was nowhere to be seen. The EU’s acts of support for demonstrators, oppositionists or human rights defenders could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They mostly included the European Parliament’s statements which, regrettably, have a rather symbolic meaning in practice.

As is the case with other “non-democracies” in the vicinity of the EU, the government of Russia was not particularly moved by them while it continued, step by step, to dismantle civil society in the country.

As a result, watchdog organisations in Russia face much worse conditions for operation at the moment. Other post-Soviet republics are following in the Russian footsteps in this respect.

There is one message that Vladimir Putin sends – human rights cannot pose any threat to his singular power. Successive laws passed by the Duma reflect the direction that Russia has assumed, far from any European and international standards.

After the assembly in Moscow on 7 June 2012 – a day of the assumption of the presidential office – the accelerated works on the law introducing amendments to the Law on Assemblies and the Code of Administrative Violations were initiated.

The fines for organising spontaneous assemblies or organising assemblies despite the issued prohibition (which is a norm, since the authorities use various formal tricks to prohibit assemblies in general), imposed on natural persons, were increased from 1,000 roubles (€24.60) to 300,000 roubles (€7,400).

The new fine for legal persons which initiate illegal assemblies (e.g. non-governmental organisations) can reach 1 million roubles (€24,600). The punishment can also be imposed for exceeding the registered number of attendees or changing the route of the march or demonstration.     

The activity of non-governmental organisations which obtain grants from abroad and participate in political life was also paralysed. They will now receive the status of “an organisation functioning as a foreign agent” and will be subject to restrictive control of the state.

The phrase “foreign agent” itself is supposed to create a certain impression in the society. Russian politicians do not hide that they are somewhat irritated by the funding transferred by American foundations. In the middle of September 2012, the biggest grant donor, American USAID, was expelled from the country.

The new law provides that organisations have to be entered in a special register and all their publications, including those on the Internet, need to have an annotation of the status of a “foreign agent”.

Moreover, organisations have to submit reports from their activity and they will be subject to annual audit. Non-compliance with these requirements will be punished with fines amounting to the equivalent of €7,350 and a punishment of 2 years in prison. Inspections of the organisations will be conducted on the basis of every – even anonymous – complaint about their “extremist” activity.

It may be expected that the selection of organisations for audit will be carried out in an arbitrary way. The law brings dangerous consequences not only for Russia; it can also spread onto the countries of Central Asia.

It was passed within approximately two weeks after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (“PACE”) had adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights defenders. In this resolution, PACE called for the member states to stop throwing unsubstantiated accusations of conducting extremist activity and being foreign agents at organisations which protect human rights.

But, it seems that the “foreign agent” label, on its own, was not enough, because in November 2012, the Duma introduced a legal definition of national treason. Treason is understood as revealing state secrets or “consulting, informing or doing any other work for a foreign state or international organisation,” if this organisation acts against public security.

In the light of such a definition, an organisation supporting victims of human rights violations before the Court in Strasbourg may easily be eliminated under a pretext of conducting treacherous activities. Such a “traitor” may be put behind bars for up to 20 years.    

The Duma also efficiently dealt with the freedom of expression. According to the amendments to the Criminal Code, individuals guilty of defamation face imprisonment sentences of up to 5 years or fines amounting to 500,000 roubles ( €12,300).

Severe criminal sanctions will have a freezing effect, preventing the media, as well as non-governmental organisations, from reporting on the activities of the authorities. In Europe, there has until now been no precedent for sanctions of up to 5 years in prison or such high fines. 

The Internet was not left alone either. The Law on the protection of children against information impeding their health and development, introduced in July 2012, forbids the dissemination of information concerning pornography, drugs and the ways to commit suicide, as well as “all other information the dissemination of which is forbidden in the territory of the Russian Federation.”

The law established a register which will consist of domain addresses and IP addresses which contain information whose dissemination is legally prohibited. The use of general clauses allows for this law to be used selectively for censoring the Internet and blocking some of the websites.

The EU leaders have displayed interest with respect to human rights in Russia practically only twice. A severe punishment imposed on the members of the Pussy Riot band was condemned by the whole range of officials, beginning with Chancellor Merkel and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.

A wide debate surrounded the case of Siergiej Magnitsky, a lawyer who denounced one of the biggest corruption affairs in Russia and who died in unexplained circumstances in prison. Until today, there has been no thorough investigation in his case.

However, it was not the EU, but the US which took more radical steps, adopting an adequate law, forbidding prosecutor, judges and investigators responsible for Magnitsky’s incarceration the entry into the US territory. Great Britain used similar tactics.  

The interest in Pussy Riot’s and Magnitsky’s cases is just a drop in the bucket of needs, especially in the situation when, at the same time, the conditions for operation of independent non-governmental organisations were practically completely destroyed.

We should expect from the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize an open and unequivocal criticism of the ongoing destruction of civil society in Russia. This destruction may, with time, lead to a complete lack of control over the actions of the authorities.

The conditions for any activities and such control of the authorities will cease to exist under the constant threat from the police, prosecution and the Federal Security Service. Every independent non-governmental leader may over night become a “traitor.”

Not without a reason, this week the legendary founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alexeyeva, has set off alarm bells in her article in the New York Times (“Backtracking in Russia”).

If the situation gets worse then, in a couple of years, people will look back at the past and think of what Europe did, or did not do, when human rights defenders from Russia were calling for help.

Unfortunately, we can already predict what the EU-Russia summit will look like. The rich of the EU will exchange friendly handshakes with Putin, all in the name of good economic and energy relations. The EU will most probably issue a general call for Russia to respect human rights, to which Putin will reply that, after all, the EU also has its own problems in this respect.

This is why his administration has recently released a special report on human rights in the EU. Finally, European leaders, with their slightly forced smiles, will say goodbye. They will go back to their countries to wallow in the festive warmth provided by Russian gas." 

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