Made in Russia: Crimea’s grim human rights predicament

Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in Simferopol, Crimea following the region being formally annexed by the Russian Federation on 21 March 2014. © DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in Simferopol, Crimea following the region being formally annexed by the Russian Federation on 21 March 2014. © DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, gives a rundown of the repression that awaits Crimea’s residents.

Two decades of stuttering human rights reform in Ukraine was almost scuppered overnight when, on 16 January this year, the Parliament in Kyiv railroaded through a raft of new legislation to restrict the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

A virtual carbon-copy of laws adopted in neighbouring Russia in recent years, they were tailor-made to give the Ukrainian authorities increased powers to prosecute those involved in the anti-government protests in Kyiv’s central Maydan Square, as well as silence dissent more widely.

President Yanukovich must have hoped that the ranks of peaceful protesters would be cowed: they weren’t. As with earlier attempts to violently disperse them, their numbers simply swelled, as the list of grievances grew. Violence bred violence, and a month later the world watched with horror as the protest reached its bloody conclusion.

Fast-forward a month, and Yanukovich has now fled to Russia, his corruption exposed, his government deposed and his party’s majority in the parliament decimated by defections.

The new government is not without its own problems – there is lingering impunity for the EuroMaydan violence, and just this week the head of the leading TV channel was violently attacked over his editorial policies by a member of parliament who stormed the studio with his thugs.

Reforms that successive governments have failed to introduce will not be made easier by the huge economic challenges the country now faces, the lingering menace of further Russian intervention in the east and the motley crew of far-right nationalists that played their part in bringing down the government and who have reaped their reward with important posts in the new administration. They will have to work hard to ensure that all Ukrainians feel they have an equal share in their country’s future.

And then there is the Crimea. President Putin appears to have got what he wanted. As have the majority of Crimeans: not that the region’s ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars felt invited to freely express their views on the matter.

Many in the Crimea will feel that they have finally come home. But if anyone really thinks that the raising of the Russian flag over their civic buildings will do anything to improve governance, root out corruption, or strengthen democratic participation in the running of their affairs, they are likely to be quickly disabused of the notion – and left with little room to object.

On 18 March, when President Putin stood in the Kremlin’s gilded halls and set the seal on what was effectively a military take-over, he exported Russian laws to the peninsula. With the stroke of a pen, Crimeans will now be bound by a different set of rules. And this will have a devastating impact on their ability to exercise their human rights.

They should heed the warnings of recent history. When President Putin’s current term began on 7 May 2012, he spoke in favour of greater participation of citizens in public affairs and encouraged greater consultation across society about legal reforms. But the reverse has happened.

The Russian authorities’ response to peaceful protest was perhaps best illustrated by the brutal crackdown on an opposition demonstration in Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin’s inauguration speech. As tens of thousands took to the streets, they were herded into a narrow corridor by baton-wielding riot police. Hundreds were arrested and scores injured in the chaos that ensued.

At the show trials of arrested Bolotnaya activists last month, even the international spotlight of the Sochi Olympic Games failed to stem the fervour with which the state apparatus put down peaceful protest outside the Moscow court. Hundreds more were arrested.

Over the past two years, ordinary Russians, and not just the most vocal critics, have seen their freedoms steadily steamrolled by the authorities. A number of new legislative and administrative measures have been introduced that breach not only international legal obligations, but Russia’s own Constitution.

They include:

Legislation curtailing peaceful protests with heavy fines for organizers of demonstrations found in breach of a restrictive list of rules and regulations. In 2013, more than 600 people were detained in the course of 81 events in and around Moscow alone; hundreds more were detained just last month.

The 2012 “foreign agents” law unleashed a clampdown on NGOs across Russia. Several organizations and their leaders have been slapped with hefty fines for refusing to register as “foreign agents”. Some have been forced to close and many more fear further persecution.

Homophobic legislation introduced last year is being used to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and assembly of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) and has already encouraged homophobic violence across Russia. Fines of up to US$3,000 are imposed for breaching it.Blasphemy was criminalized after the Pussy Riot punk group staged a brief and peaceful, albeit provocative, political performance in the main Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 2011.

Libel has become a crime again.

Don’t expect Crimeans to engage in an informed public debate about this “made in Russia” repression which is already beginning to take hold in the peninsula.

They won’t be able to. In Russia, state control has been consolidated over a prominent news agency, critical news websites and blogs blocked and threatened with prosecution, the editor and director of an influential independent media outlet sacked, and a popular cable news channel taken off the air by several satellite providers.

The warning signs are clear. In Crimea, the crackdown is coming. But the repression won’t be televised.

NOTE: A slightly modified version of this blog originally appeared in Foreign Policy magazine.