A leading NGO is spearheading mounting calls for EU foreign affairs supremo Catherine Ashton to raise public awareness of an “unprecedented attack” on civil society in Russia.
The demand, by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), comes amid growing international pressure on Moscow to repeal “draconian” new legislation said to “threaten the viability” of Russia’s civil society.
Many of the civil society groups which have fallen victim to a wave of new laws have been the subject of a nationwide campaign of “intrusive” government inspections of NGOs.
The IPHR, a Brussels-based organisation, recently launched a major project monitoring trials of Russian NGOs.
It is claimed the inspections and subsequent proceedings are being used to force some organizations to either end certain types of activities or close altogether.
Speaking at a seminar at the Brussels Press Club, the IPHR’s Brigitte Dufour called on all EU member states and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to take action at the highest level to counter the new laws.
She said, “Every opportunity should be used to convey that the EU and Russia have a shared interest in ensuring the rule of law in Russia.”
Her call echoes similar demands made at a hearing on the ‘rule of law and human rights in Russia’ in the European Parliament in Strasbourg (7-10 October) where MEPs said they were “deeply concerned by the negative consequences of the adoption of federal laws” in Russia.
MEPs endorsed a cross-party parliamentary resolution which specifically condemns the introduction of an “anti-propaganda” law voted in Russia’s federal Duma in June.
Under this, anyone organising a gay pride event or giving information about LGBT issues to those under the age of 18 is liable to a fine.
In a separate move, a recent report by Human Rights Watch accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s of “unleashing a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.”
The report, “Laws of Attrition — Crackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency,” says the Russian authorities have introduced a series of “restrictive laws, harassed, intimidated, and in several cases imprisoned political activists and interfered in the work NGOs.”
The current crackdown in Russia came under the spotlight at a high-level panel discussion on Russia on 8 October, organised by the EU-Russia Centre and EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.
The keynote speakers included Dufour who heads the IPHR, an NGO launched five years ago to act as a “voice” for civil society.
She outlined details of the organisation´s new project under which the trials of NGOs currently taking place throughout Russia are closely monitored by a team of international experts.
The teams, including leading human rights lawyers, compile reports of the trials that they share with local NGOs in Russia. Evidence and data collected from the proceedings will also be sent to the EU in the hope that it will intensify pressure on the 28-member bloc and wider international community to act against what the IPHR brands “this unprecedented attack on civil society.”
One such case is that of Golos, an independent association for election monitoring in Russia.
The Russian Justice Ministry recently suspended the activities of Golos for failing to register as a “foreign agent.”
Legislation that came into force last November obliges all Russia NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they are involved in any kind of political activities and receive funding from foreign sources.
Golos has been prohibited from holding public events and will have its bank accounts frozen.
The group, which was founded in 2000, monitors and comments on elections in Russia and other countries. It is also active in trying to shape election law in Russia. The group had a prominent role in drawing attention to fraud, including alleged ballot-rigging in the Russian parliamentary elections of December 2011.
Outrage over the fraud set off a series of large street protests in Moscow that continued for much of last year and led to the formation of a new coalition of political opponents to Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at the same Brussels seminar, Yuri Dzhibladze, of the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow, revealed that the director of Golos had now fled Russia for fear of prosecution and possible imprisonment.
Dzhibladze said that since the new laws were introduced, over 1,000 NGOs in Russia had been targeted by inspectors and that “dozens and dozens” of groups had received warnings about the consequences of “engaging in political activity.”
Dzhibladze said that currently there are about “two dozen” trials taking place of NGOs and civil society groups said to have “violated” the new legislation.
Evidence of these proceedings is being collated by IPHR, in conjunction with the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP).
One such case includes details of a recent inspection carried out by Russian officials on the premises of the Kostroma Civic Initiatives Support Centre.
According to the Kostroma prosecutor’s office, from 2011 to 2103, the centre received “funding from foreign sources, including from the United States of America” which it had used in the opinion of the prosecutor’s office, for political activity.
However, IPHR monitors say that the prosecutor’s seven-page fails to substantiate the allegations against the centre.
The IPHR says this is just one example “among many” of how the authorities are currently violating Russia’s international legal obligations to protect freedom of association, expression, and assembly.
Dufour says, “The Russian government should end the crackdown on civil society and instead foster an environment in which civil society can thrive. It should repeal these overly restrictive legal provisions and follow recommendations set out by such intergovernmental organizations as the Council of Europe and the UN to bring legislation and practices into line with Russia’s commitments to these institutions.”
She goes on to say that Russia’s international partners “should use every opportunity to remind the government to do so.”
Her comments are echoed by Rostislav Valvoda, of People in Need, an NGO based in the Czech Republic.
Sharing the same Brussels platform, he said, “The new laws were adopted at breakneck speed.
“Taken together, the laws and government actions violate Russia’s international legal obligations.”
Vincent Degert, head of division for Russia at the EEAS, admits that he “shares the frustration” of many civil society groups at Russia’s perceived failure to address such issues.
“We have had some frank and lively discussions and I still believe that dialogue is the best way forward,” he said.
“We shall continue to make our arguments heard. But when it comes to the question of whether there will be changes, I just don’t know the answer to that.”