Kenneth Roth

© 2012 Human Rights Watch

I wasn't surprised that she would become the target of threats. Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's intrepid researcher in Moscow, has long been an irritant for Russian authorities. Her petite size and casual demeanor belie a tenacity and courage that are exceptional among the world's leading human rights researchers. In the darkest, most violent days of the Chechen insurgency, Tanya was one of the few willing to take the risks required to document and publicize the indiscriminate shelling, torture, and "disappearances" that characterized Russia's response. She brought a similar singularity of purpose to atrocities in other war-torn provinces of the Northern Caucasus -- Ingushetia, Dagestan -- and, these days, increasingly, to the crackdown on dissent in Moscow.  

Still, once the threats started coming, I admit to being taken aback by their brazenness and depravity. Visibly pregnant, Tanya had been planning a last investigation in Dagestan before heading off on maternity leave. Someone didn't want her to continue her work.

The communications came this week by text message. In a transparent effort to suggest, falsely, that Tanya was complicit with the Islamist insurgents facing Russian security forces in Dagestan, the sender pretended to be speaking on behalf a group of rebel fighters, even if he mangled the spelling of Allah to have only one L.

Most of the messages were crude and direct, making clear that the sender or his accomplices were following Tanya. The authors claimed to be "nearby" and coming after her, and predicted that she would have an "uneasy 'birth.'" They referred to personal details about her movements and those of relatives, her pregnancy, and her unlisted home address. Some of this information would have been known only to someone monitoring Tanya's communications and surveying her.

The point was obviously intimidation -- so that she, and Human Rights Watch, would stop our reporting on rights abuses in Russia. Instead, we held a news conference. In a last-ditch effort to force us to cancel it, two text messages that morning threatened to reveal concocted information about Tanya's personal life. We ignored them and told the media that the threats would redouble our determination to document and publicize human rights violations in Russia.

Tanya's plight is emblematic of the crackdown under way today against Russian human rights defenders and other members of civil society. The large-scale demonstrations beginning in December 2011 against alleged fraud in the parliamentary election and Vladimir Putin's decision to return to the presidency seem to have shaken his confidence. The softer era of Dmitry Medvedev is over. In the hope of preventing further protests from getting out of hand and triggering the "color revolution" that he has long feared, Putin is tightening the screws.

The result is a spate of repressive laws, proposals, and practices. Participants in unauthorized protests face massive new fines, as harsh as those of the penal code but imposed administratively without the due-process benefits of a criminal trial. Human rights groups that receive foreign funding will now have to wear the demonizing label of "foreign agent." The U.S. Agency for International Development, a funder of many Russian non-governmental organizations, has been expelled. Penalties for criminal defamation have been re-introduced. A broadening of the law against treason is in the works, designed to dissuade human rights advocates from international advocacy.  

Currently 17 demonstrators face trial, mostly on flimsy charges, and 12 are in custody. Short-term detentions in connection with protest rallies have become epidemic. So far, the number of completed prosecutions remains small. The most famous -- of the Pussy Riot women for a 40-second anti-Putin "punk prayer" stunt near the altar in an Orthodox Church -- was an easy target that the Kremlin could not resist playing to the hilt in appealing to Putin's conservative political base in the Russian hinterland.

The effect of these new laws is to induce fear -- to discourage public dissent and the continuing protests by showing what can be done to shut them down. The authorities seem to be calculating that memories of Soviet rule are not so distant that imaginations fail to apprehend how ugly a return to overt repression could be.

But Putin, notorious for his disdain of the Internet and of the liberals behind the protest movement, seems to be miscalculating if he thinks it will be easy to return to the past. Despite the new restrictions, there is a vibrant civil society in Russia today. Social media are thriving, allowing ordinary people to circumvent the pro-Kremlin propaganda that pervades the government-dominated television stations. The atomization of society that was essential to Soviet rule is no longer.

That is not to say that change will come quickly or easily. Few doubt the Kremlin's willingness to use the new repressive tools that, at its request, the Duma is obligingly enacting. And like the threats against Tanya, the struggle may not be pretty.

The international community could help with more sustained pressure on Putin and more overt solidarity with Russians seeking a deeper democracy. U.S. President Barack Obama may need Russia's help on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but there should be no more talk of "resetting" relations with a man who is demonstratively trying to turn back the clock to the Soviet era. The European Union's Russia policy, dominated by Germany, should move beyond seeing Russia as a source of gas for heating European homes, and abandon the view that speaking firmly to Moscow is the equivalent of a return to the Cold War.

Western governments have been firm and vocal in support of Tanya. I can only hope they will channel her mettle when they next meet the Kremlin. Putin may sneer, but they should tell him that if Russia wants respect in the international arena -- if it wants the normal relations that it needs to modernize its increasingly one-horse economy -- it must end the kind of harassment of civil society exemplified by its threats against one tough, pregnant human rights activist.