As Russia moves towards its coronation – sorry, presidential election – this Sunday, the clampdown on the autocracy’s political opponents continues to tighten. The outcome is already decided, as President Putin has anointed Dimitry Medvedev as his successor. But just to make sure, the authorities have been using every trick in the book to clamp down on freedom of expression, assembly and association.
This week Amnesty International published a report, Freedom Limited documenting the use of vague legislation to harass anyone expressing their opinion and standing up for their rights. Amnesty outlined the hydra-headed attack on opposition demonstrations, human rights activists, journalists, radio stations like Ekho Moskvy, non-governmental organisations, friendship societies like the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society – indeed any independent organisation that voices criticism of the authoritarian regime.
The investigation into the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya has run into the sand as authorities high up in the regime are clearly protecting those who ordered the killing. The international Committee to Protect Journalists has warned about the high casualty rate for journalists in Russia.
According to International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) analyst John Crowfoot, Russia is currently the most dangerous place to be a journalist, after Iraq. He has produced a database that outlines the deaths and disappearances of 289 journalists in Russia since 1993. The youngest to have died is a 19-year-old reporter killed last September; the oldest, a retired journalist of 80, was stabbed to death in his home a few years ago. Forty-seven of those killed were women.
Another independent human rights organisation, Article 19 has warned repeatedly about the use of defamation laws to suppress criticism of public figures and powerful individuals against the media. “Criminal defamation” laws have led to imprisonment in three cases over the past two years.
In Nizhniy Novgorod, a city of 1.5 million people, police beat up demonstrators, while in Nazran, Ingushetia demonstrators were wounded and 60 people were detained. Three Moscow television journalists and Oleg Orlov, a member of Memorial organisation were abducted from a hotel, beaten and left in a field by unidentified men wearing masks. Before the December parliamentary elections, workers at state-owned plants and public sector workers were virtually ordered to vote for Putin’s party or lose their jobs.
And it gets worse. Today the IFJ called on journalists’ unions around the world to join protests over a “cynical campaign” by Russian political bosses to close down the Russian Union of Journalists, the country’s largest non-governmental organisation. For the past year state agencies in Moscow have been trying to evict the Russian Union from premises they have occupied for almost 30 years and which they were promised ownership of by previous governments claiming the building is unsafe.
Now the RUJ has learned that the government is trying to sell the building to a private owner and in the process put the RUJ on the street. “The Russian Union has been one of the most strident critics of government pressure on independent journalism,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “It is the victim of intimidation and a cynical campaign by its political opponents who have failed to close the union using trumped charges of breaching fire regulations, now are trying to sell off offices that the union insists are legally their own.”
Even world-famous personalities like chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, who tried to stand as a candidate against Putin was arrested last November along with 200 other people. He spent 28 days in a Moscow jail. After his release, Kasparov did not mince his words: “Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich [the oligarch who owns Chelsea FC]. Putin’s system is more like Mafia than democracy.” Sounds like the time is ripe for another Russian Revolution.