One year ago today, Vladimir Putin was sworn in for the third time as Russia’s president. He placed his hand on a copy of Russia’s constitution, saying, “I swear to protect and guarantee the rights and freedoms of our citizens.”
But Putin has not lived up to that oath as the Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on rights that is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.
In the past year, Russia’s government has passed numerous laws – often at breakneck speed – designed to lock down civil society.
Several of the new laws aim to limit, or even end, independent advocacy. One restricts foreign funding for groups that engage in "political activities." The law goes so far as to label these groups “foreign agents” – synonymous with spy and traitor in Russia. Another law essentially bans funding that originates in the United States for “political” groups and bans all groups that work “against Russia’s interests.” More laws restrict Internet content and impose limits, as well as harsh fines, on public demonstrations. In late April, Human Rights Watch released a 78-page report, “Laws of Attrition: Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency,” analyzing these changes.
Meanwhile, pro-government media runs propaganda depicting critics of the government as dangerous enemies.
Russia’s government has also begun a nationwide campaign of invasive inspections of nongovernmental organizations. In recent months, inspections have targeted more than 250 organizations across Russia – including the Moscow offices of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Officials have harassed, intimidated, and even imprisoned political activists.
Little more than a week ago a court declared that the election-monitoring organization, Golos, ran afoul of the “foreign agents” law, slapping it with a 300,000 rubles (almost US$10,000) fine.
The run-up to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games taking place in Sochi, Russia, has also been marred by rights abuses against Sochi residents and workers toiling on Olympic construction. Only a week ago, police and private security forces injured demonstrators protesting against the proposed construction of a power plant in a residential neighborhood.
The new laws and government harassment are pushing civil society activists to the margins of the law. The government crackdown is hurting Russian society and harming Russia’s international standing.