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Russia: Yukos Trial Begins Amid Rights Rollback

Khodorkovsky’s trial occurs at a time when the Russian authorities—guided by President Putin’s seemingly benign concept of “managed democracy”—are exhibiting extraordinary determination to reestablish control over numerous spheres of public life—business being just one of them. And in reasserting control, the authorities are steadily rolling back some of the main gains in civil liberties since the end of the Soviet era.

Many believe Khodorkovsky is an oligarch who pilfered the country to create his oil company, and welcome the case as a display of President Putin’s resolve to tackle economic crime. Others see Khodorkovsky as one of the rare Russian entrepreneurs to establish a transparent and socially responsible business, and are convinced that his case is a politically motivated show trial.

Show trial or not, if it’s anything like most trials in Russia it is unlikely to showcase the judiciary’s independence. More likely, defense arguments will be downplayed, most of its motions overturned, and the outcome will have little to do with the hearing and a lot with executive will.

Khodorkovsky’s trial occurs at a time when the Russian authorities—guided by President Putin’s seemingly benign concept of “managed democracy”—are exhibiting extraordinary determination to reestablish control over numerous spheres of public life—business being just one of them. And in reasserting control, the authorities are steadily rolling back some of the main gains in civil liberties since the end of the Soviet era.

Throughout the eight months Khodorkovsky has spent behind bars, Russia has consistently and increasingly openly moved towards authoritarianism. The final year of Putin’s first term, which was followed by his reelection in March, saw the concentration of power in the hands of the chief executive and Putin’s growing reliance on the so-called siloviki, or the strongmen in the security services, the army and the interior ministry. Parliament became a rubber stamp institution, the liberal opposition was obliterated, and independent television stifled. Backtracking on rights followed Putin’s reelection, including renewed efforts to punish alleged “spies,” further cavils at the press, barely veiled threats against non-governmental organizations, and a new law that will restrict public protests.

Putin’s team presents all these developments as a reasonable price to pay for restoring “order and stability”—what Russians are said to crave—after years of “unmanaged democracy” in Russia. But much of the “chaos” remains. The coal miners’ lengthy hunger strikes over back wages give the lie to the government’s claims to be prioritizing social and economic rights. Thousands have rallied to protest government plans to replace social benefits with cash payments not indexed to inflation.

Nor have some of Russia’s worst ingrained human rights problems improved under “managed democracy.” Unabated and unpunished police torture, coerced confessions and convictions on trumped-up charges remain rampant across Russia. The conscript army is corroded by violent hazing, ill-treatment, poor nutrition and lack of medical care. And xenophobia, extremism and discrimination against ethnic minorities are growing at an alarming rate.

Political pluralism
In the past year, political pluralism and a parliament capable of challenging the executive, which the authorities apparently saw as two major obstacles on Russia’s path towards “managed democracy,” have essentially been eliminated

Parliamentary elections in December and the March presidential election have moved the country dangerously close to a one-party system, with the dominant party closely affiliated with the chief executive. Ironically, the only real “opposition” party in the parliament now is the Communist Party, but having just an insignificant minority of votes, it has virtually no influence on the legislative process.

The elections were conducted in a way that raises serious doubts about the future of free and fair elections in Russia. They were characterized by the improper use of government resources, the Kremlin’s blatant use of the television media it controls to vilify the opposition and to promote the United Russia party in the parliamentary elections and the incumbent in the presidential elections.

When liberal parties, such as Yabloko and the Union of Rights Forces, ultimately lost their seats in parliament, they also lost their voice on the political scene and most media airwaves. With them has gone the voice of a moderate opposition.

Soon after Putin’s reelection, the compliant parliament expeditiously took several swipes at civil liberties: it approved a law proposing a 30-day detention period without charge for terrorism-related crimes, a restrictive law on public rallies (see below), and a bill that would make public referendums nearly impossible for groups without governmental ties.

Press freedom
By the second half of his first term President Putin made it very clear that he had no use for the freedom exercised by the Russian media since the glasnost period. Under different pretexts, all of Russia’s nationwide television channels—ORT, NTV, TV6 and TVS were either shut down or effectively taken over by the state.

After the newly compliant media played its part in the run-ups to parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian authorities moved forward in taming the press and disposing of intractable journalists. A heavy blow was the sacking of NTV’s most famous show host Leonid Parfenov and the cancellation of his popular analytical program. Parfenov was fired for making public an overt act of censorship—his NTV bosses, at the request of the security services, ordered him not to broadcast an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist killed in Qatar.

Meanwhile, the number of libel suits and criminal libel cases against the media is constantly growing, forcing journalists to practice painstaking self-censorship. Russian officials at various levels regularly come up with new proposals to officially restrict media freedom, for example, by introducing licensing for the Internet media. Attacks on journalists are the order of the day in many Russian regions, and over the last month, at least ten journalists were beaten or assaulted and some of them arrested in Moscow while covering public rallies.

Non-governmental organizations
Russian non-governmental organizations and human rights groups have been the most recent targets to become “managed”. President Putin chose nothing less than his state-of-the-nation address in May to launch an attack on human rights groups, accusing them of “receiving financing from influential foreign foundations and serving dubious groups and commercial interests,” and of forgetting “about some of the most acute problems of the country and citizens.”

Just days after the address, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused humanitarian organizations in Chechnya of using their missions as a cover for anti-Russian activities. One of the central TV channels, TVC, devoted an hour-long primetime program to denouncing the work of human rights groups, accusing them of what the presenter called their “hatred” for Russia. Along the same lines, a Kremlin political adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, rebuked rights activists for being "engrossed" in Western ideals. Masked intruders ransacked and smashed the office of the Human Rights Center in the city of Kazan in central Russia. According to the center’s leader, the intruders were citing the President’s state-of-the-nation address.

Freedom of assembly
In the early 1990s freedom of assembly became one of the first democratic freedoms that Russians publicly and massively exercised to effect change. A law adopted earlier this month “manages” this crucial right by banning demonstrations at the presidential residence, prisons, courts, border zones and facilities that are "dangerous and harmful to health," such as railways and power lines. The bill requires the organizer to inform the authorities of their plans rather than secure a permit, but the authorities can still outlaw a rally if they believe that the goal of the rally contradicts Russian law. They can also order the changing of a gathering’s location just days before the scheduled date.

Over the last two months police and security guards have violently dispersed at least three public rallies. For example, on June 2, police broke up a rally organized by Yabloko and Communist Party members to protest new laws on referendums and rallies, and arrested three Yabloko activists.

A New Wave of “Spymania”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia’s security service has tried to reassert its dominion over certain spheres of sensitive information. In doing so, it has, among other things, pressed dubious espionage charges against about a dozen scientists, journalists, and environmentalists—a phenomenon dubbed “spy mania” by rights activists.

The defendants were accused of working with foreign contacts on issues that, in Soviet times, were under the security service’s exclusive control, such as nuclear waste dumping, environmental degradation, military technology, and the like. In most cases, however, the courts, perhaps seeking a face-saving solution, gave short or suspended sentences on other charges, and in some cases had the men released.

A worrying change since Putin’s reelection is the case of arms researcher Igor Sutyagin. As of April 2004, Sutyagin had spent over four year in detention while his case has been investigated and tried. That month, after a trial marred by violations of fair trial standards, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the longest prison term for high treason since Soviet times.

The case served as a clear warning to other academics, journalists and other specialists doing research on sensitive issues. Meanwhile, the Federal Security Service, the procuracy and courts may once again feel that they can move forward without a backward glance at the law or public opinion.

On May 19, a closed military court sentenced a former intelligence agent Mikhail Trepashkin to four years in prison for divulging state secrets and possessing illegal ammunition. Prior to his arrest, Trepashkin was investigating the apartment bombings of 1999, raising questions about the potential involvement of security agents. His colleagues from the parliamentary commission that looked into the blasts believe that Trepashkin’s prosecution was meant to shut down this work.

And earlier this month, Russia’s Supreme Court overturned a jury’s acquittal of physicist Valentin Danilov. Danilov was accused of selling information on space technology to China and acquitted after a 21-month trial by jury last December. The Supreme Court ordered his case to be retried by a new jury.

The conflict in Chechnya
No one has tried to apply the term “managed democracy” to Chechnya, but the government’s conduct in the continued armed conflict reflects its predilection for managed images and information and its disdain for human rights.

The beginning of President Putin’s second term brought about new triumphant remarks about normalization in Chechnya but no positive changes on the ground. Summary executions, disappearances, torture and looting remain routine in Chechnya.

Russian authorities have closed the last big tent camp for internally displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, perhaps the most visual reminder that the conflict is grinding on. They effectively coerced its inhabitants into returning to Chechnya without providing adequate accommodation or security guarantees. With the exception of periodic visits by foreign dignitaries, Chechnya is closed to international monitoring, making the job of controlling images and information about “normalization” a lot easier.

Even so, the April assassination of Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president, Akhmad Kadyrov, has exposed the emptiness of the government’s claims of “normalization,” and has led to a new cycle of violence and abuse by both sides in the conflict.

What to do?
In addition to their much-cited craving for stablity, people in Russia care about fundamental rights. Now more than ever, liberal forces, civil society and the human rights movement in Russia need outside support. Russia’s partners should assert the primacy of human rights in their relationships with Russia. They should call for the creation of a truly independent television channel, and for an end to selective prosecutions. They should promote accountability for abuse, and transparency in Chechnya.

There is good reason to believe that the backsliding from democracy in domestic affairs will affect Russia’s foreign policy. Russia’s partners should send an unequivocal signal that they cannot and will not be also “managed” by the Kremlin.

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