During the eight years of his presidency, Vladimir Putin systematically attacked the rights of Russian citizens to form politically oriented nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), address labor concerns through trade unions, and demonstrate openly against government policies. These crackdowns came as part of a larger campaign against democracy. Unfortunately, the downward trajectory has continued even as Putin shifts to the post of prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev takes over as president.
Freedom of Association
The government restricts autonomous NGOs while promoting organizations that carry out state policies. The 2006 law on NGOs imposes onerous registration and other requirements on civic organizations and interest groups, making it extremely difficult for them to function. The legislation grants extensive authority and discretion to the Registration Service, a unit of the Justice Ministry, to demand documents from NGOs, deny or revoke their registrations, and conduct intrusive inspections at their offices. Paperwork is sometimes rejected over miniscule, superficial errors under a provision covering documents that are prepared “inappropriately.” Another rule allows dissolution of an NGO if it receives two warnings for the same violation, and there is apparently no statute of limitations for warnings. The government also uses vaguely worded antiextremist legislation, amended most recently in 2007, to target groups it opposes. The most frequent victims of bureaucratic disfavor are organizations that criticize state policies, particularly on topics such as Chechnya, human rights, election monitoring, law enforcement oversight, migrant and refugee policy, appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, and corruption among the ruling elite. The authorities have even pursued groups that assist other NGOs in complying with the complex new regulations. A gay rights group in Tyumen was reportedly denied registration in December 2006 on the grounds that its goals threatened “spiritual public values” and undermined state security by reducing the population. Reports from the Moscow Helsinki Group claim that the authorities have closed 2,300 of the approximately 216,000 groups operating in Russia at the end of 2007.
There are few domestic funding sources for NGOs because Russia has no established culture of philanthropy, and businesses and wealthy individuals are afraid of funding groups that might offend the authorities. Consequently, many human rights NGOs receive funding from abroad, despite Putin’s public disapproval of this practice. The 2006 NGO law was particularly damaging to groups that relied on foreign funding, imposing extensive reporting requirements that often overwhelmed their capacity to engage in substantive activities. Foreign NGOs operating in Russia are required to submit detailed annual reports on their upcoming projects and expenditures, with quarterly updates and advance notice of any changes. The Registration Service can use this information to prohibit specific projects. A new NGO can be denied registration if its founders include foreigners whose presence in Russia is deemed “undesirable.”
In addition, the Kremlin has begun to provide funding for NGOs, favoring groups like Nashi, which work to ensure that Russian youth support government policies and reject any calls to participate in grassroots prodemocracy movements. State funding for NGOs is channeled through the Public Chamber, a consultative body formed in 2005 to provide a formal interface between the state and civil society. However, to a certain extent the chamber serves more as a buffer that blocks direct consultation, and as a means of co-opting or marginalizing independent groups. One-third of its 126 members are appointed by the president; those members choose the second third, and the resulting total chooses the remainder.
Members of NGOs face considerable harassment for their work, including spurious criminal allegations, tax investigations, fire inspections, and arbitrary charges of engaging in extremist activities. The authorities selectively enforce laws in a manner detrimental to NGOs, confiscating computers that allegedly contain pirated software while paying little attention to threats of violence against activists. At least one activist was imprisoned in a psychiatric ward for reporting on abuses in this area. In another case, the director of a media-related NGO was charged with failure to declare about $12,400 in currency—slightly over the $10,000 legal limit—upon returning from a trip abroad, and the authorities parlayed the relatively minor infraction into a crippling investigation that forced the group’s closure. Foreign staff members have had difficulty obtaining visas and are often questioned by security officials while in Russia.
Workers have great difficulty setting up and supporting free trade unions. Many are pressured to join the official Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), which works closely with both the Kremlin and company managers. According to FNPR figures, half of the Russian workforce is unionized, and 90 percent of that segment belong to the FNPR. Small, independent unions encounter obstacles in forming and working to meet their members’ needs, and Registration Service officials have argued that the 2006 NGO law applies to unions as well, meaning they are subject to similar interference by the authorities. Small or autonomous unions, including craft unions, are also disadvantaged by labor laws that allow only one bargaining agreement for each enterprise, negotiated by a union representing a majority of the employees.
Current legislation makes it almost impossible to hold a strike legally. For example, the duration of a strike must be declared when workers vote on it, and strikes can only be called to resolve a specific bargaining dispute, ruling out sympathy or protest actions and strikes to demand union recognition. Furthermore, employers can hire replacement workers during strikes, and in the event of an illegal strike, union property can be confiscated to compensate the employer. Nevertheless, there were numerous labor actions across Russia in 2007, and the trend seems to be increasing as inflation raises the cost of living and wages fail to keep pace. At the Ford manufacturing plant in Leningrad Oblast, workers launched the first open-ended strike since Putin came to power, holding out for 25 days. In other cases, workers have mounted work-to-rule actions or called in sick en masse to avoid restrictions on formal strikes. Actions such as the Ford strike resulted in better pay for workers.
The authorities harass strike leaders, and union officials have been denied access to members’ workplaces. One of the organizers of an August 2007 AvtoVAZ strike was detained, and two union officials lost their jobs after a postal strike in St. Petersburg. Other organizers have faced similar reprisals. Influential managers are able to mobilize law enforcement agencies against protesting workers, and often refuse to disclose wage data and other information to unions attempting to mount collective bargaining efforts. The law largely protects such data as commercial secrets. Meanwhile, the country’s estimated one million illegal migrant workers are frequently forced to work without pay, with their passports held by employers or labor brokers.
Freedom of Assembly
Russian citizens currently face great restrictions on the freedom of assembly. One study found that authorities had banned or dispersed almost every public protest across Russia during the first nine months of 2007. While the law allows such demonstrations, the requisite permit procedures make protest actions extremely difficult in practice. Organizers must request permits at least five days in advance, and even when a protest is approved, officials often assign alternate sites in remote areas. The authorities frequently deny permission for protests by groups that are critical of the regime, while allowing progovernment marches by organizations that receive state funding. Participants in unapproved demonstrations now face up to 15 days in jail, whereas previously they usually had to pay fines.
Marches sponsored by opposition groups are met with overwhelming police force and result in injuries to demonstrators. In some cases, as with a May 2007 gay rights demonstration in Moscow, counterdemonstrators attack protesters while police stand by, and victims are arrested for provoking the clashes. The state-controlled media typically portray opposition protesters as hooligans or extremists without relating their messages, and government officials actively warn citizens to avoid planned demonstrations. Hotels and other private venues refuse to accommodate controversial events, apparently under pressure from authorities. Opposition gatherings have been plagued by power outages and other disruptions.
A series of “dissidents’ marches” organized by Other Russia, a coalition of opposition and civic groups, drew police beatings and arrests in several cities in 2007. Activists were systematically detained on dubious charges while traveling to planned marches, and supporters were arrested for distributing leaflets about the events. In November, the authorities arrested prominent protesters including opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, who was released the same day, and Garry Kasparov, who was held for five days after a summary court hearing. The arrest of such well-known figures sends a clear warning to potential participants and supporters. Another organizer, Artyom Basyrov, was arrested one day before a November protest in Yoshkar Ola and confined to a psychiatric hospital for one month.