Report: BEARR Trust Autumn Lecture

Media and civil society under attack in Russia: What can we do?  

September 2021 

Independent political and civic activity has been increasingly repressed in Russia in recent years. While the jailing of Alexei Navalny and the suppression of his organisation has made headlines around the world, measures to restrict ‘foreign agents’ have also impacted civil society organisations less directly associated with political activism.  

For the BEARR Trust’s autumn lecture, human rights lawyers Maria Logan and Anastasia Burakova came together in conversation to discuss the impact of the Russian government’s crackdown on civic activism – and its implications for the future. 

Both Maria and Anastasia are campaigners for political and civic rights. Maria joined the campaign to free Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2008, and since his release has been a trustee of the Future Russia Trust and from outside Russia has pressed for greater political freedom, Anastasia first became involved in civic activism in Krasnoyarsk in 2011, at the time of the widespread protests at the Duma elections. She now chairs the Otkrytka human rights team in St Petersburg, which provides legal assistance to Russian citizens who have been arrested in demonstrations, put under administrative pressure or whose human rights are otherwise threatened by the practices of the police, courts and law enforcement agencies.  She is also a founder of the United Democrats project to support independent candidates.  

The BEARR lecture took place just a week after the Duma elections held on 17-19 September. Predictably, these returned another ‘supermajority’ for the ruling United Russia. But, says Anastasia, few ordinary Russians believe in the official results: many candidates were excluded, and evidence of falsification during the three-day election period has been published. Nevertheless, the authorities still value the appearance of legitimacy, even if it is widely discredited.  

The range of repressive measures is extensive. Anastasia highlighted three legal tools:  

  • First, the law on ‘undesirable organisations’ gives the government the power to effectively shut down bodies that it sees as presenting a challenge. Initially, this mainly applied to international organisations, but the scope has recently expanded to include domestically-based civil society and media organisations, such as Open Russia and the legal defence body Team 29.  

The undesirable organisations law has also led to the repression of individual citizens: Anastasia Shevchenko, an Open Russia activist, was the first to be charged and placed under house arrest under the law in 2019. Andrei Pivovarov, a former director of Open Russia and a potential Duma candidate in St Petersburg remains in prison.  

  • Second, the foreign agents law enables the Ministry of Justice to determine any organisation receiving funds from abroad as a ‘foreign agent’. Recent changes to the law mean that any candidate connected in some way with a foreign agent has to declare this on election material – a clear electoral disadvantage given the (deliberate) national security associations of the term ‘foreign agent’.  
  • Third, laws on extremism have been used to repress Alexei Navalny’s campaign and to prevent the subsequent publication of investigative material generated by it, and the scope of the law has been progressively widened.  

As a consequence, many of those associated with Team 29, Otkrytka and Navalny’s campaign have moved abroad, and continue to press the case for human rights from there. Within Russia, the “atmosphere of fear” has increased in recent months, as independent and opposition organisations have become easy to close down and the ability (and, within the current environment, willingness) to protest has been curtailed.  While it is possible that there may be some relaxation now that the election is passed, we might expect a further ramping up of pressure ahead of the next presidential elections in 2024.  

This suggests a bleak outlook, and the prospect of change through mass organisation or protest seems unlikely. However, Maria and Anastasia pointed to some areas of optimism for the future. While relatively few people are engaged in politics or human rights issues on a national scale (and are anyway inhibited by the repressive climate), there is an opportunity to change things at local level, at a scale that is amenable to influence by ordinary citizens. As Anastasia noted, the regime isn’t entirely monolithic and all-controlling: there are still independent and quasi-independent media organisations, and change is possible at the margins.  

Technology presents an opportunity too. It has become easy for the government to limit the activities of organisations, closing down associations and preventing protest. But individual voices are harder to control and are amplified through social media, as more influencers report on election violations, human rights issues and so on. The space for collective action may have narrowed, but it may be growing for citizens as individuals.  

Linked with this, Maria was hopeful of generational change, reflecting a common theme of many recent BEARR lectures. This might materialise in the longer term, but the regime is ageing, Putin’s popularity is weaker than it once was and there is potential in a new cohort of younger people with changing aspirations.  

What can individuals and organisations outside Russia do to help? The Russian government still wants respect and credibility, so international pressure is still important: human rights cases still find their way to the European Court, even if the government ignores the rulings at home, and there is a value in foreign governments pressing the human rights case. More broadly, dialogue between civil society organisations in Russia, those that have moved abroad and supporters in other countries remains both possible and vital.  

In the meantime, within Russia itself, there continues to be enthusiasm and drive for human rights projects such as Otkrytka, despite the challenges they face. In St Petersburg, Anastasia continues to work to defend those pressurised by repressive laws.  

Ross Gill, BEARR Trustee

18 October 2021 

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