Russia's 2013: the year in human rights

The amnesty, presidential pardon and resulting ‘celebrity releases’ might understandably overshadow the rest of 2013, says Tanya Lokshina. But it's far too early to suggest they underpin a significant improvement in the rights situation in Russia.

What will we remember about 2013? The release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s wealthiest man and its most prominent political prisoner of the past decade, would seem to have largely overshadowed all else. And no wonder! The former oil tycoon was freed just a few days ago, his radiant smile lighting up television screens as if wiping the slate clean for the Kremlin. This must be the most obvious choice for the event of the year.

Celebrity releases

Dozens of journalists asked Khodorkovsky the same question, ‘Why now?’ His answer was always the same, with very slight variations, ‘I think it’s a sign that the Russian government and Putin personally are seriously worried about the country’s image.’ He also suggested that these image-improving efforts were most probably linked to Russia hosting the Olympic Games in the winter and the G-8 summit in the summer of 2014. Both these events are scheduled for Sochi, a popular Black Sea resort whose face has been forever changed by the colossal pre-Olympic construction.

PR efforts or not, it was still impossible not to rejoice in seeing Khodorkovsky free at long last and reunited with his family.

PR efforts or not, it was still impossible not to rejoice in seeing Khodorkovsky free at long last and reunited with his family. It is no less wonderful to know that just a few days earlier several ‘Bolotnaya Square’ demonstrators, who were being tried on disproportionate charges of ‘mass rioting’, walked out of a courtroom in central Moscow, freed from further prosecution under the federal amnesty for the 20th anniversary of Russia’s Constitution.

It was also thrilling to watch the two young women from the Pussy Riot feminist punk group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, exit prison gates this Christmas week; and to rest assured that 30 Greenpeace activists and crew of the Arctic Sunrise will celebrate the holidays with their loved ones. 


Memorial, one of Russia's oldest and most venerable human rights organisations is daubed with graffiti reading 'foreign agent.' Photo memo.ru

International media are buzzing with this good news. One commentator has gone as far as calling 2013 ‘the year of Vladimir Putin's ascendancy.’ Russia’s president almost comes across as a beardless Santa Claus sitting under a mammoth Christmas tree in the Kremlin and handing out gifts of clemency:  the country’s most famous political prisoners all released in one week, so the world can raise a celebratory toast, relax and look the other way…

Or not quite so clement?

However, do wait a second before uncorking that bottle of champagne! Apologies for such a distinctly non-festive question, but what is it exactly that we’re celebrating? We would do well to recall that Khodorkovsky’s prison term of ten years and ten months was in fact due to expire in another six months. Or that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who should never have faced criminal charges in the first place, have served almost the whole of their two-year sentence, getting out less than two months before their scheduled release date. Haven’t the Greenpeace activists just spent several months in jail on initially absurd, then disproportionate, charges? And how about the so-called ‘Bolotnaya’ prisoners? That problem is by no means solved. Two of them were released from custody, one freed from house arrest and another one had travel restrictions lifted. But more than a dozen remain behind bars, including Sergey Krivov, who was recently on a protracted hunger-strike protesting unfair trial proceedings, and Mikhail Kosenko, presently appealing his sentence of indefinite detention in a psychiatric institution on charges of mass rioting and an act of violence threatening the life of an official.

Mikhail Kosenko is presently appealing his sentence of indefinite detention in a psychiatric institution.

And finally, back to the former ‘top prisoner’ Khodorkovsky. Would you admit to even a shadow of doubt that the second set of charges against him and his associate Platon Lebedev, which resulted in their second conviction in 2010, were politically motivated? Lebedev is still in jail and that trial was by all counts a huge blow to the rule of law in Russia.

This is indeed a sobering moment. We can rejoice for the individuals who have been freed as a result of the amnesty or through presidential pardon, even if there is little doubt that these decisions were all made at the highest level and motivated by the same image-improving objective. But we should not allow ourselves to think for a moment that the dark cloud hanging over Russia has been lifted and the country’s deeply problematic human rights record miraculously improved overnight. The recent prisoners, who are now enjoying long-awaited freedom, have unjustly wasted months or even years of their life behind bars. Though they’re no longer in confinement, that doesn’t change the fact that they were imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

The new laws

The release of these individuals obviously makes a huge difference for them and their families but not for Russia’s justice system, which remains severely compromised by political manipulation. It also does not signify an end to the Kremlin’s vicious repression of its critics, a crackdown of unprecedented magnitude, which began with Putin’s return to presidency in May 2012.

At its heart is the ‘foreign agent’ law, which requires advocacy groups to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive even a kopeck of foreign funding. This law was rammed through parliament just a few months into Putin’s third presidential term. As the term ‘foreign agents’ belongs to the cold war era and has no other interpretation but ‘spies and traitors,’ the law is clearly meant to demonise subversive groups in the eyes of Russian society. Over a thousand nongovernmental groups were subjected to aggressive and intrusive inspections, when the prosecutor’s office launched its hunt for ‘foreign agents’ in the spring of 2013.  Dozens received warnings or direct orders from prosecutors to register as ‘foreign agents’. Refusal to wear this badge of dishonour can result in suspension for the organisation and a prison sentence of up to two years for its leader(s).

By the end of 2013, the Justice Ministry had used the foreign agent law to suspend the activities of two election watchdog groups, both from the Golos [Russian for 'vote'] network. At least four other groups chose to wind up their operations, rather than face further repressive legal action. Many others are engaged in protracted court fights with prosecutors. In some cases they have been successful, but prosecutors are now seeking other legal avenues to harass them for failing to register.

Frightened by the massive public protests of the two previous years, the Kremlin is apparently attempting to reassert itself. 

These are battles that Russian groups shouldn’t have to face. Every one of these court cases takes precious time and resources away from victims of abuse who really need help. Moreover, the government’s hunt for ‘foreign agents’ is underpinned by a large-scale smear campaign in state-sponsored media: critics of the government are portrayed as puppets of the West, hired to undermine Russia’s prestige.

Us and them

Frightened by the massive public protests of the two previous years, the Kremlin is apparently attempting to reassert itself. To this end it is consolidating its conservative support base by upholding the ideological dichotomy of  ‘traditional’ versus  ‘non-traditional’ and ‘real Russian’ versus  ‘external and alien.’ Within that paradigm, the government is trying to divert public discontent toward specially designated enemies, supposedly opposed to Russian traditions.

The current list of enemies has three main entries:

  • - ‘foreign agent’ human rights advocates, or just about anyone who is critical of the government’s failure to uphold international norms, especially those who advocate the values of universal human rights;
  • - LGBT people (no wonder the recent blatantly discriminatory law, which came to be widely known as a ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ and which essentially puts homosexuality in the same basket as pedophilia, is worded as prohibiting the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’); and
  • migrants, who are being blamed for urban crime and lack of respect for Russian social and cultural customs (in other words, again, the ‘traditional’ norms).

And needless to say, as part of this ideological framework, human rights activists are depicted as protectors of gays and migrants, in the pay of destructive external forces.

Khodorkovsky emphasised that his release should not be interpreted as a sign that Russia is ready for liberalisation and ‘deep reforms.’ 

While noting that he owed his freedom to the Kremlin’s desire to boost Russia’s image on the international stage, Khodorkovsky emphasised that his release should not be interpreted as a sign that Russia is ready for liberalisation and ‘deep reforms.’ This assessment seems especially telling, as his release from prison and immediate transfer to Germany were strikingly reminiscent of Soviet practices.

In a scene that could have have come from a film about Soviet dissidents, Khodorkovsky was taken to the airport straight from the prison camp in the dead of the night, still wearing his prison clothes. He discovered his destination only when already on board the plane bound for Berlin. But it seems even more poignant in light of the fact that, only a few hours after Khodorkovsky was freed, a court in a small southern Russian town of Tuapse sentenced an environmental activist, Evgeny Vitishko, to three years in prison.

In June 2012, after a trial with serious due process concerns, Vitishko and his colleague Suren Gazaryan were found guilty of ‘causing significant damage to private property’ – that is, to a fence surrounding a dacha allegedly belonging to the governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksandr Tkachev. The three-year sentence was suspended, with Vitishko and Gazaryan both required to observe a curfew from 11 pm to 6 am, report to the authorities on a regular basis and notify the authorities in case of change of residence etc.


Suren Gazaryan fled Russia after a being convicted of damaging a governor's fence. The trial had serious procedural issues. Photo CC Chath.

Both activists believed that the authorities were trying to punish them for their criticism of the environmental damage caused by Olympic construction in and around Sochi. Gazaryan fled the country to avoid being thrown behind bars and his fears now appear more than justified: Vitishko has been accused of violating curfew rules and his suspended sentence has been changed to an actual prison term. A court of superior jurisdiction should deliver a ruling on Vitishko’s appeal in the last week of 2013.

Vitishko might not have Khodorkovsky’s fame or stature, but he should not be forgotten when the world is celebrating the release of famous Russian political prisoners. Sustained international engagement with the Kremlin is crucial to the survival of independent activists in Russia – as well as to Russia becoming a rule-of-law state…