Human Rights Watch Expert: Russia on Path to ‘Higher Level of Authoritarianism’
Relations between Germany and Russia are tenser right now than they have been in months, with Berlin becoming more open about Moscow’s human rights shortcomings. But a prominent human rights activist argues that Chancellor Angela Merkel should take advantage of her “enormous personal authority” to do more.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How severely has the human rights situation deteriorated since Vladimir Putin returned to his role as Russia’s president earlier this year?
Denber: What we have seen since his May 7 inauguration has been one shocking, demonstrative move after another. During the Colored Revolutions of 2004-2005, Russia ushered in a new era of managed democracy and authoritarianism. During the Dmitry Medvedev era, a slight loosening of the screws happened. Then, through a combination of alleged fraud in the parliamentary elections and the announcement that Putin and Medvedev would switch places, a raw nerve was struck with many people who felt they were being infantilized. A protest movement began.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Kremlin, of course, has not responded with much understanding to this hint of civic uprising.
Denber: We are now seeing a reaction to not only reverse whatever happened under Medvedev, but also steps that take things back to a higher level of authoritarianism. This is happening because the Kremlin never again wants to face the prospect of humiliating street demonstrations. They want to return to an era when the Kremlin was in complete and total control of the policy process and outcomes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What new Russian laws have proven most problematic from a human rights perspective?
Denber: The new demonstrations law imposes stiff new penalties on unsanctioned protests that are sometimes 30 times higher than the old fines, as well as introducing new restrictions on protests. And new Internet restrictions at the federal level essentially create a registry of blacklisted web content that can be decided on by courts if they deem it to be extremist or by the executive branch or local authorities if it is deemed harmful to children. The criteria for making these decisions is arbitrary and it could lead to the shutting down not only of individual websites, but also social networking platforms like Facebook or its Russian equivalent. Then there is the NGO law, which requires any Russian NGO that obtains foreign money to register as a “foreign agent.” If they don’t, they can face criminal penalties. What could possibly be the purpose of that except to create the image of an enemy? Then last month they made amendments to the anti-treason law to include the sharing any kind of material — technical, financial, advisory or other assistance to any foreign organization, foreign state, their representatives or international organizations that is directed toward “harming” Russian security. That’s pretty broad.