Rights in Russia: Pushing Back

Recent developments in the Russian courts and parliament make it clear that the Russian opposition movement is having an impact. First we saw a more respectful security presence for our marches in June. We were allowed to march in relative peace, although intimidation and harassment of our activists and organizers continued prior to the marches.

Now we have seen several statements and decisions from the government that reflect the results of the global pressure, however slight, largely brought on by our efforts. The use of force exposed the Putin government to unpleasant global scrutiny. The moment Putin and his gang saw the world was watching they began to get nervous about all the bank accounts and other assets they maintain in the West. There were comments from Angela Merkel, George Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the European Parliament when Other Russia leader Garry Kasparov appeared there on May 23. Despite frequent statements from the Putin government and Putin himself that they don’t care what the world says or what the opposition does, the last few days have shown differently.

For the first time since the creation of the notorious Russia “Law on Extremism,” the latest changes to it include several positive changes from the perspective of human rights. The most draconian of the sentencing laws that could have meant years in prison for public protesters have been removed. The anti-journalism laws against people “excusing extremism” in the media have also been erased. The laws on wiretapping those suspected of “extremism” are still in place but the attempt by some of the true extremists — those in the Duma — failed and a court order is still required.

These may sound like small victories and indeed they are. But they are the first of their kind and so deserve attention. We note a few other positive developments in recent days as well. The local court in Krasnodar invalidated the warning against the Yabloko party that they had been issued for distributing the book of our friend Andrei Piontkovsky, “Another Look into Putin’s Soul.” Piontkovsky is being accused under the extremism law for the contents of this collection of his newspaper columns. Russian bookstores have declined to sell the book for fear of government reprisals.

In St. Petersburg, the District Attorney has begun an investigation into the beatings of our demonstrators during the April 15 Dissenters’ March. There are allegations that the police “exceeded their authority.” We will be following these cases very closely. If recent cases are any guide, the judges prefer to rule that anything done by a member of the security forces is legal de facto.

Earlier today, Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin stated that authorities across the nation have violated the spirit and sometimes the letter of the constitution. He also said that many of the government’s actions against the opposition, such as banning public demonstrations, are politically motivated. Again, this is hardly news to us, but it is notable to see these statements being made in the mass media. More on Lukin’s statement here.