Human Rights Watch Expert: Russia on Path to 'Higher Level of Authoritarianism'

Relations between Germany and Russia are tenser right now than they have been in months, with Berlin becoming more open about Moscow's human rights shortcomings. But a prominent human rights activist argues that Chancellor Angela Merkel should take advantage of her "enormous personal authority" to do more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday. Zoom
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How severely has the human rights situation deteriorated since Vladimir Putin returned to his role as Russia's president earlier this year?

Denber: What we have seen since his May 7 inauguration has been one shocking, demonstrative move after another. During the Colored Revolutions of 2004-2005, Russia ushered in a new era of managed democracy and authoritarianism. During the Dmitry Medvedev era, a slight loosening of the screws happened. Then, through a combination of alleged fraud in the parliamentary elections and the announcement that Putin and Medvedev would switch places, a raw nerve was struck with many people who felt they were being infantilized. A protest movement began.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Kremlin, of course, has not responded with much understanding to this hint of civic uprising.

Denber: We are now seeing a reaction to not only reverse whatever happened under Medvedev, but also steps that take things back to a higher level of authoritarianism. This is happening because the Kremlin never again wants to face the prospect of humiliating street demonstrations. They want to return to an era when the Kremlin was in complete and total control of the policy process and outcomes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What new Russian laws have proven most problematic from a human rights perspective?

Denber: The new demonstrations law imposes stiff new penalties on unsanctioned protests that are sometimes 30 times higher than the old fines, as well as introducing new restrictions on protests. And new Internet restrictions at the federal level essentially create a registry of blacklisted web content that can be decided on by courts if they deem it to be extremist or by the executive branch or local authorities if it is deemed harmful to children. The criteria for making these decisions is arbitrary and it could lead to the shutting down not only of individual websites, but also social networking platforms like Facebook or its Russian equivalent. Then there is the NGO law, which requires any Russian NGO that obtains foreign money to register as a "foreign agent." If they don't, they can face criminal penalties. What could possibly be the purpose of that except to create the image of an enemy? Then last month they made amendments to the anti-treason law to include the sharing any kind of material -- technical, financial, advisory or other assistance to any foreign organization, foreign state, their representatives or international organizations that is directed toward "harming" Russian security. That's pretty broad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've said it is almost as if the Kremlin were adhering to a schedule in introducing these laws.

Denber: Each of these pieces of legislation were adopted with extraordinary speed. There have been other developments, too. This may not be a human rights move, but it was shocking to see USAID get kicked out of Russia. Then UNICEF. There is also unprecedented anti-foreigner rhetoric and a number of cases going on like Pussy Riot. Whatever you think about what they did in the cathedral, however offensive you think it was, I don't think any normal criminal court would have found that sufficient enough to put you in jail for two years.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How great is the risk these laws will be enforced?

Denber: What they are doing is creating a massive gray space of legal ambiguity and of intimidation to deter people from getting involved in civic activity -- to cut off the next generation of human rights activists and investigative journalists, or even people who might have some kind of alternative vision to promote.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The West has certainly responded to all of these developments. Is this having any influence whatsoever in Moscow?

Denber: The Kremlin is listening very closely. But there is a new rhetoric and an attitude of defiance and aggression intended to intimidate foreign governments and international organizations. One of the main ideas behind having human rights standards is that when human rights violations happen, it is never just the internal matter of a country. The Kremlin is really trying to shift that, and it will be truly sad if Russia's partners buy into this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Germany, parliament passed a resolution last week demanding that, in its dealings with Russia, the German government push for the "European values of rule of law, human rights and democracy to be applied (by Moscow) in its general dealings with civil society actors." Does Berlin have the kind of influence over Russia that German politicians would like to believe?

Denber: Germany has a very, very important relationship with Russia. It is Russia's most important bilateral partner and the same holds true for Germany. Their partnership has had a difficult history and there is a lot of baggage, but they are extremely important trading partners to each other.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But is the rhetoric Russia uses against Germany really all that different from that applied to other Western countries?

Denber: For now, there is a totally different rhetoric towards Germany than there is against other Western countries, particularly the United States. You don't hear the Kremlin making ridiculous claims about Germany similar to their accusation that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid to stage protests in Russia. Russia is trying to paint the US as an aggressive, dangerous force in the world that uses military intervention to get its way. It sees the US as trying to refashion the world and forcibly "export democracy."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, there has been intense criticism in Moscow of Andreas Schockenhoff, the initiator of the resolution and Merkel's coordinator for cooperation with Russia.

Denber: Their strategy is to see if Germany is going to stand behind him. I don't see any evidence that Berlin is going to hang him out to dry. He has a very sharp analysis of what is going on in Russia today. Russia is trying to swift-boat a man who has spent years working on German-Russian relations. To smear him suggests real anxiety.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2004, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder described Putin as a "flawless Democrat." His policies toward Russia bordered on fawning and he even later went to work for a Russian pipeline project. Has the relationship changed significantly under Merkel?

Denber: Not overall. I haven't seen any move to de-emphasize the importance of relations with Russia or any scaling back of ties. Merkel, however, has been more willing to raise issues and she has certainly been stronger than Schröder on human rights. When our colleage Natalya Estemirova was murdered in 2009, it happened on a day when she had a meeting with Medvedev, and she spoke to him about it. Not every leader would do that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Given Merkel's role in the international community, could Germany do more to help harmonize Russia's approach to human rights with that of the West?

Denber: Putin views international engagement on human rights as a power issue. The Kremlin's vision of human rights is this: If you're weak, you get picked on. Germany has a lot of clout and Merkel has considerable gravitas and enormous personal authority. These are all assets that can help deliver concrete results. It is difficult to think of any other actor on the world stage that is better placed to talk seriously about the need for an open society with the Russian government than Germany. Merkel needs to make clear that the direction Putin and the Kremlin are taking Russia in today is warping deep ties between Russia and the EU and taking the relationship in an unconstructive direction.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The position at Human Rights Watch is that the EU should drop its "business as usual" approach to Russia. What does that mean?

Denber: We are in a defining existential moment now. Russia's shock and awe campaign represents a dramatic departure that requires a dramatic response. You often hear from EU leaders that human rights is already a part of their conversation with the Russians, but it isn't the number one issue and it really needs to be. The EU also needs to come to a common position on Russia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What keeps Europe from acting more decisively against Russian human rights abuses? Is there a general fear of the country?

Denber: Russia views the EU as weak and they probably see this as a moment to act. It's not easy to agree on a strong position on civil society in Russia among all EU partners because different member states have different agendas. Russia is part of the Council of Europe (Europe's human rights organization), and the EU needs to point out to Moscow that we all have the same human rights obligations. But there are very smart people at the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry and they know how to divide and conquer. Putin's peevishness, the sneering way in which he has responded to reflections about human rights developments in the country, is very revealing. It shows that, at some level, the Russians care deeply -- otherwise they would shrug it off and walk away. But it also has the effect of making people not want to raise these issues because no one wants to deal with that kind of reaction.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Or, presumeably, the potential economic consequences. Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas is never far from the debate.

Denber: It's a problematic knee-jerk reaction in Europe -- the assumption that if we raise human rights issues, then the Russians will cut off the gas. That totally oversimplifies the nature of economic interdependence between Russia and the EU. Yes, there is a high dependency in Europe on Russian natural gas, but that also means there is a high reliance in Moscow on Europe purchasing that gas.

Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey

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1. Beggars can't be choosers!
powermeerkat 11/17/2012
sysop. Angela Merkel having reversed herself to increase her popularity (the move failed, btw.) and ordering a closure of all German atomic power plants, has made Germany even more dependent on Russian gas, and thus even more vulnerable to the KGB gen. Putin's blakkmail. So what bargaining power does Berlin have vis-avis Moscow? N O N E !
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About Rachel Denber
  • Human Rights Watch
    Rachel Denber is the deputy director for the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Previously, Denber directed the Moscow office of the human rights organization. She studied international relations at Rutgers University and earned a master's degree in political science from Columbia University.

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