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(Moscow) –Russia is repeating the mistakes of Western governments during the Arab Spring by continuing to support a longstanding authoritarian ally whose people have clearly expressed the desire for democratic change, Human Rights Watch said in releasing its annual global survey at a Moscow news conference today.

Western governments were slow to recognize the popular will in places like Egypt and Bahrain. Russia is failing to recognize it in Syria today, and continues to equate popular protesters with government snipers and torturers, as though they were two equivalent sides of a civil war.

Meanwhile, a strong wave of anti-authoritarian protests is rising in Russia. The massive peaceful demonstrations in Russia that followed the December 2011 parliamentary vote were a resounding public rejection of the growing authoritarianism that has marked the Putin era, Human Rights Watch said.

The elections followed a year in which the government fostered a hostile environment for civil society, which doomed the prospects for competitive elections, Human Rights Watch said in the report. In addition, the authorities refused to register new political parties, gave pro-government parties disproportionate access to media coverage, and abused government resources to support pro-government candidates. Protesters claimed that the election was rigged, with ballot-box stuffing and other violations. 

“The lesson of Russia’s post-election awakening is that the public matters,” said Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has taken notice of this powerful wave of civic discontent and has promised reforms. It should refrain from impeding peaceful protests and dismantle the pillars of authoritarianism in Russia.”

In its 676-page 2012 World Report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the Middle East region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

The 2012 World Report documents human rights abuses worldwide, including: violations of the laws of war in Libya and Afghanistan; the plight of political prisoners in Vietnam and Eritrea; the silencing of dissent in China and Cuba; internet crackdowns in Iran and Thailand; killings by security forces in India and Mexico; electoral abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo; mistreatment of migrants in Western Europe; neglectful maternal health policies in Haiti and South Africa; the suppression of religious freedom in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia; torture in Pakistan and Uzbekistan; and detention without trial in Malaysia and by the United States.

A separate essay in the report looks at the lessons learned in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago and at the implications for the nations where Arab Spring protests have taken hold. The collapse of a repressive, authoritarian regime does not guarantee  the arrival of a government committed to human rights, the essay says, and the Kremlin exploited the disappointment many Russians felt that the transition did not immediately improve their lives.

In Russia in December, in the wake of the protests, President Medvedev sent to parliament draft laws to liberalize the electoral system. Among other changes, the proposed laws would lower the threshold of votes that parties must garner to secure a Duma seat, starting with the 2016 election.

While the authorities permitted the demonstrations in mid-December and police largely did not interfere, that was not the case for much of 2011. Police frequently dispersed public rallies held by civil society activists and the political opposition, used excessive force, and arbitrarily detained peaceful protesters.

Human Rights Watch highlighted a series of other human rights problems that caused concern during 2011. Human rights defenders in Russia are vulnerable to harassment and violent attack, and those working in the North Caucasus are especially at risk, Human Rights Watch said.  In Chechnya, impunity for 2009 murders of   three activists – Natalya Estemirova, Zarema Saidulaeva, and Alik Dzhabrailov – has had a chilling effect on civil society. In Dagestan, authorities have not conducted effective investigations into attacks on human rights defenders and lawyers despite pledges to do so. Indeed, instead of holding accountable police who beat the human rights lawyer Sapiyat Magomedova in 2010, the authorities charged Magomedova with using violence against state officials and insulting police officers.

A law decriminalizing libel that entered into force in December served to quash the criminal slander case against Oleg Orlov, head of the human rights group Memorial. The case stemmed from Orlov's 2009 statement suggesting that Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was responsible for Estemirova’s murder.

“Ending criminal libel is a very important step for freedom of expression in Russia,” said Bogert. “But much more needs to be done to protect people who speak out about controversial issues.”

The way the government handles the investigation of the December 2011 murder of Gadzhimurad Kamalov, publisher of a leading independent newspaper in Dagestan, is an important test of the government’s commitment to protect investigative reporters, Human Rights Watch said. 

Killings of whistleblowers have also gone unpunished, Human Rights Watch said. A police official was arrested on suspicion of organizing the 2006 murder of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but other investigations into attacks on independent journalists have been largely ineffective. The authorities at first closed an investigation into the death of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, but reopened it after a presidential working group conducted an independent public inquiry.

The Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus intensified during 2011, with a growing number of insurgent attacks. The authorities’ use of torture, abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the course of their counterinsurgency campaign, coupled with impunity for these abuses, only appeared to antagonize people in the North Caucasus, Human Rights Watch said.

Chechen law enforcement and security agencies under Kadyrov’s de facto control also use collective punishment against relatives and suspected supporters of alleged insurgents. Memorial documented 11 abductions of local residents by security forces between January and September 2011. Five of those abducted subsequently “disappeared.” Increasingly, victims fear official retribution if they speak out about violations.

The European Court of Human Rights issued more than 210 judgments holding Russia responsible for grave human rights violations in Chechnya. Russia has paid the required monetary compensation to victims. But it does not carry out the core requirements of the judgments, chiefly because it does not conduct effective investigations and hold those responsible for the abuses accountable.

Access to quality health care remains a serious problem in Russia, Human Rights Watch said. Ill-advised government policies around drug treatment and HIV prevention continued to undermine Russia’s battle against the HIV epidemic. Although over 300,000 Russians die of cancer each year, with many facing severe pain, available palliative care services are limited. As a result, hundreds of thousands of patients die in avoidable agony each year.

Russia also hosts between four and nine million migrant workers, who come overwhelmingly from states of the former Soviet Union. Thousands are employed in building sports venues and other infrastructure necessary for Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Some workers reported, though, that employers failed to provide contracts, adequate housing, or payments in full or on time.

“The recent response to the demonstrations in a political year, with the presidential election coming up in March, cracks open a window of hope for broader human rights concerns,” Bogert said. “The next months will be critical, and the world will be watching.”


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