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A Challenge To Us All

29 October 2012

A new situation has developed in the Russian Federation. The reaction by the Russian authorities to the peaceful demonstrations for free and fair elections that took place in the winter of 2011 and the first half of 2012 has reached a new intensity, severely restricting human and civil rights in Russia. On the one hand, a whole swathe of poorly drafted legislation has been passed, or is currently making its way through the legislative process, restricting public assembly, re-criminalizing libel, obliging NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in loosely defined ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’, increasing the scope of treason law, and criminalizing ‘insulting believers’. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies have progressively racheted up a series of repressive measures against those who publicly express disapproval of the authorities. 

The best known instances have been the investigation into the May 6 demonstration under which 18 people currently face charges, the sentencing of two members of Pussy Riot to two years in prison for singing an anti-Putin song in the Church of Christ the Saviour, and the criminal cases that have been opened against opposition leaders Aleksei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and others. There have also been threats against human rights defenders. Most recently, and in a new escalation of lawlessness, Russian security services abducted Leonid Razvozzhaev in Kiev and took him to Moscow. He has alleged that he was tortured and threats were made to kill his family. 

Those who support the campaign for free and fair elections in Russia have sought to establish a public space in Russia for the discussion of issues affecting the whole of society. For their pains they are being treated in a manner which bears comparison with the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents. There is a real danger that human rights organizations – including groups such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and Memorial whose origins go back to Soviet times - may once again be banned. 

Today many people are asking: How will civil society in Russia react to these developments? But this is not the only question. How will civil society outside Russia react? And how will democratically elected governments react to this increasing repression within Russia? The Russian authorities have thrown down a challenge to their own civil society. They have thrown down a challenge to us all.