President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting in Valdai, Russia on September 19, 2014.

(Moscow) – Dramatic deterioration in the past decade has made Russia’s human rights landscape virtually unrecognizable, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said at a news conference in Moscow today. Roth is on his first visit to the country since May 2005. 

“Starting in the early 2000s, many in Russia have been wary about increasing pressure on critics, but now there is full alarm about autocratic rule,” Roth said. “The rights retrenchment has been most pronounced following Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.”

Critics of Putin’s rule have borne the brunt of the government’s crackdown, Roth said. Independent human rights groups have been particularly targeted, initially by burying them in bureaucracy. In the past two years, the government has branded these groups “foreign agents,” understood in Russia as “spies,” if they accept foreign funding. Several of these groups were forced to close, and more are fighting for their survival. The government registered 17 as “foreign agents” against their will, and dozens have been tied up in lawsuits with the prosecutor’s office. 

The government has long removed independent, critical voices from television and is steadily closing in on critical online and social media, using a combination of new, restrictive legislation, intimidation, and other measures. It is also threatening the viability of any remaining independent media with new laws severely limiting foreign media ownership. 

To appeal to its primarily conservative base of support, the government has embraced discrimination. The government failed to reverse the adoption of regional laws banning spreading among children “propaganda” for “nontraditional sexual relationships,” widely understood to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) relationships. In 2013, the government adopted similar legislation at the federal level. The federal law has been accompanied by a rise in vigilante violence against LGBT people. 

In a positive development, several government agencies have acknowledged and constructively engaged with advocates on issues relating to the rights of people with disabilities. 

“Strong human rights groups and independent critical voices in the community and the media are essential for preventing authoritarian rule and upholding human rights standards,” Roth said. “It is sadly no surprise that the government’s repression of independent voices has been accompanied by a rise in violations and a slide into autocracy.”