Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s trip to Moscow this week, the first one during Sweden’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comes as Russia is in the midst of a severe human rights crisis. Last month’s arrest of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, five months after his near-fatal poisoning, shocked many in Sweden and around the world. And the arrests of thousands of protesters across Russia during the past two weekends underscores the breadth of the politically motivated crackdown on the opposition. It is only the tip of the iceberg.
Toward the end of 2020, Russia’s government rammed legislative amendments through parliament clearly aimed at shutting down civil society and silencing independent or critical voices. The amendments drastically expand the scope of the law on “foreign agents,” the toxic label that Russian authorities for years have assigned to a wide range of independent groups to demonize and isolate them. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Kremlin seeks to equate as “foreign” any speech or action that is any way critical of the authorities.
The new laws dramatically expand the range of people who can be declared “foreign agents,” irrespective of nationality. They apply to anyone -- including, in some cases, foreign journalists -- who carries out “political activities” while “acting in the interests of international or foreign organization.” The list of so-called political activities is wide, and includes such things as “disseminating opinions about state bodies’ decisions or policies.” What does that mean? Is it just posting a view on social media, or something more substantive? The law is deliberately vague.
Once you’re declared a foreign agent, you have to label every publication, including social media post, as “authored by a “foreign agent” and file regular reports on activities and expenditures to the authorities. Failure to comply results in large fines, and in some cases repeated non-compliance can land you up to five years in prison. The authorities can also slap media outlets with hefty fines if they interview a “foreign agent” without mentioning their status.
The new legislation also expands the notion of “foreign funding”—now it can also include money received from a Russian citizen who themselves had received the funds, regardless of their purpose, from a foreign source. It also spells out that foreign funding is not limited to receiving monetary funds but also extends to support such as training and capacity-building.
For more than seven years, the authorities have targeted a wide range of registered groups—working on human rights, the environment, women’s rights, health issues, and the like—with the “foreign agent” label. Under the new law, they can go after unregistered groups as well. The Justice Ministry can also ban certain activities of “foreign agent” and other organizations.
A provision that is pending would, if adopted, tarnish people running for public office with the “foreign agent” label, if, for example, during the two years before their election campaign they were affiliated with entities that had been designated as foreign agents.
Other draft amendments make libel punishable by up to two years in prison, and five years for libel regarding allegations of sexual assault, no doubt to take aim at the #MeToo movement in Russia.
In recent years, Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and other critics and prosecuted many thousands who have not complied with excessively stringent public assembly rules. New draft legislation makes these rules even more restrictive, for example by equating a series of single-person pickets—the only form of public protest that does not require prior authorization –with mass demonstrations requiring prior approval. Repeated violation of these rules can trigger a prison term of up to five years.
The massive crackdown on January 31 demonstrated the lengths that Russian authorities are ready to go to restrict the right to free speech and to protest peacefully. And it was not the first time. When about 100,000 people nationwide took to the streets on January 23 to protest Navalny’s arrest and express general frustration with government corruption, the authorities detained more than 3,700 people—including 300 children--a record number for arrests in a single day. There were numerous reports of excessive use of force by police, including beatings, with much of it photographed or filmed by media outlets or private citizens and posted to social media.
In advance of the January 23 protest, authorities detained harassed, and intimidated, activists and students. Last week, in advance of further nationwide protests on January 31, they did the same, raiding homes and detaining people affiliated with Navalny, as well as with other prominent independent groups.
They also opened numerous criminal cases regarding the January 23 protests, for mass riots, violence against police, and violating Covid-19 related public health rules, abusing the latter as a tool for a blanket-ban on public protests. In previous years, Russian authorities retaliated against participants in mass protests with showcase witch-hunt trials, which resulted in long prison terms.
Sweden’s government has publicly committed to promoting democracy, and made the new Drive for Democracy a centerpiece of its foreign policy. Line reiterated the need to stand up for democratic principles and promote active participation of civil society earlier this year in her speech as Sweden took over the leadership of the OSCE.
Linde’s Russian visit should not be business-as-usual. While in Moscow, she should emphasize that the OSCE is founded on the premise that security and human rights are inextricably linked, and that the latter are in serious trouble. She should raise these issues during her meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and call on the Russian government to respect fundamental rights and freedoms, stop the crackdown on Russia’s civil society, and repeal the draconian “foreign agent” legislation.
A shortened version of this article have been published in Swedish by ETC.