On June 7, the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened to discuss Russian violations of borders, treaties, and human rights. The Minsk accords, multilateral agreements intended to cease Russian hostilities in eastern Ukraine, lied at the heart of this hearing (1). However, in the testimonies of Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia and David Satter of the Hudson Institute, a more sobering discussion of human rights and civil society emerged. Beyond the enforcement of international obligations and the posturing of military forces, the greatest challenge that faces the US and other states seeking to maintain international security is an “intellectual” one, according to Satter. The principal task of the US, as it seeks to mitigate Russian aggression, is to envisage the most effective means of holding Vladimir Putin’s regime accountable to the people and ending a 25-year era of post-Communist abuses.
The political order in Russia is a mere shell of a democracy. In recent years, as Russian military adventurism in the region has increased, so too the repression of civil society has steadily persisted. A series of laws enacted within the last five years have made it more difficult for Russians to assemble and protest, speak freely on the Internet, and advocate for political and humanitarian causes (2). In December 2011, mass protests erupted in Moscow and other Russian cities in response to Putin’s announcement that he would run for a third term as president and allegations of rigged parliamentary elections. One month later, after Putin’s inauguration, the Russian parliament passed a bill, which raised fines and penalties for participation in unauthorized protests to 300,000 rubles (more than $9,000 at the time). In July 2014, Putin authorized a new and even more restrictive law that not only raises fines for protesters but also threatens five years of forced labor or prison (3). In its effort to further suppress dissident voices, the Kremlin has readily shrunk independent media to near oblivion and actively censors free information. By the end of 2016, it is expected that the State will have limited foreign ownership of media companies to 20 percent (4). Moreover, Putin’s regime has specifically targeted civil society, particularly non-governmental organizations and other advocacy groups, under the specious pretenses of ‘national security’ and ‘constitutional order.’ Golos, an election watchdog that detailed fraud during the 2011 elections, is just one victim of Russia’s “foreign agent law”, which requires NGOs receiving funds from outside the State to register as “foreign agents” or be subject to exorbitant fines. Anyone who refuses to capitulate to the Kremlin’s demands might be subject to an attack on his or her finances or reputation, or even violence or death (5). During the hearing, Kara-Murza, Satter, and senators, alike, made several references to Boris Nemstov–a former Russian politician, democracy advocate, and vocal critic of President Putin who was assassinated last year in Moscow (6).
Holding perpetrators responsible for this kind of violence and repression will require a more robust enforcement of sanctions, according to Kara-Murza and Satter. Kara-Murza explained that public lists containing the names of Russian perpetrators who the US has sanctioned for human rights violations present reputational costs that are most effective in deterring these aggressors (7). The US can strengthen this effort by declassifying lists likely containing the names of high-ranking officials. Moreover, as Satter himself described, the US must endeavor to promote psychological healing in Russia. An initiative, akin to the South African Truth Commission, that endeavors to uncover the past 25 years of abuse must be encouraged and implemented. However, as September elections inch ever closer, the US must, in the immediate future, provide its full support to Russian civil society, as lasting deterrence will ultimately come from the inside.
(1) “Ukraine Ceasefire: New Minsk Agreement Key Points.” BBC News. British Broadcasting
Corporation, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 June 2016.
(2) Boghani, Priyanka. “Putin’s Legal Crackdown on Civil Society.” Frontline. Public
Broadcasting Service, 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 June 2016.
(5) Lokshina, Tanya. “Russian Civil Society Deemed ‘Undesirable’.” openDemocracy.
openDemocracy, 20 May 2015. Web. 9 June 2016.
(6) “Russia: Events of 2015.” World Report 2016. Human Rights Watch, 2016. Web. 9 June
(7) Baker, Peter and Ellen Barry. “U.S. Penalizes Russians for Human Rights Violations.”
The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 12 April 2013. Web. 9 June 2016.
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