Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. During the year the government instituted several new laws restricting both freedom of expression and of the press, particularly in regards to online expression. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Ukraine and Syria, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle dissent. As of December the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,003 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of more than 450 items from 2018. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 1,200 extremism cases in 2018, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
At the same time, in December 2018, President Putin signed legislation that partially decriminalized the expression of “extremist” views, stipulating that speech that “incited hatred or enmity” or denigrated a person or group be treated as an administrative misdemeanor, not a crime, for a first-time offense. Several persons were previously charged with extremism under criminal law for comments and images posted in online forums or social networks. Following the amendment to the antiextremist legislation, however, courts dropped charges against some of the defendants. On January 15, for example, authorities dropped charges against Eduard Nikitin, a doctor in the Khabarovsk region who faced up to five years in prison on extremism charges. He was accused of “liking” an image condemning the country’s aggression in eastern Ukraine posted on the Odnoklassniki social network in 2015.
Although the amendment was expected to have a retroactive effect, not all individuals imprisoned on extremism charges saw charges dropped or sentences commuted. For example, on August 28, a court in the Belgorod region denied a request for parole from 23-year-old doctoral student Aleksandr Kruze. In February 2018, a court in Stariy Oskol sentenced him to 2.5 years in prison for extremism for reposting four nationalist images on social media in 2016. Kruze had been writing a dissertation on radicalization and maintained that the posts had been a part of a research experiment in online discourse around radicalism.
By law authorities may close any organization that a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the “propaganda” of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, on October 28, the Moscow branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs opened an administrative case for suspected “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” against the producers and participants of a YouTube video in which children interviewed a gay man, Maksim Pankratov, about his life. The video contained no discussion of sex, but included questions on Pankratov’s sexual orientation, how he would like other individuals to treat him, and his vision for his life in the future. On November 2, the Moscow Region Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation into the video’s producers and participants on suspicion of “violent sexual assault of a minor” younger than age 14, a crime punishable by 12 to 20 years in prison. According to press reports, the parents of the children in the video have experienced pressure from authorities to testify against the video’s producers and received visits from child protective services, which they interpreted as a threat to terminate their parental rights. Pankratov reported receiving threats of physical violence from unknown persons following the opening of the criminal case. As of December Pankratov was in hiding in an undisclosed location in Russia, while the video’s producer, popular online celebrity Victoria Pich, had fled the country.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, on September 30, a court in Irkutsk sentenced Dmitriy Litvin to 100 hours of community service for social media postings in 2015 of caricatures that allegedly offended the feelings of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and shamanists.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” For example, on April 5, the Investigative Committee for the Chuvash Republic opened a criminal case against opposition blogger Konstantin Ishutov for material he had posted on social media in 2010 criticizing authorities’ poor maintenance of local cemeteries and contrasting it with the maintenance of cemeteries in Germany. Investigators claimed this material attempted to justify the actions of Nazis during World War II and diminish the significance of the Soviet victory. Ishutov was charged under the same statute in 2018 for posting a photo of a Nazi leaflet with the phrase, “When the Third Reich treats the Soviet people better than Putin treats the Russian people.” As he awaited trial, a court prohibited Ishutov from using the internet, traveling, or leaving his home after 10 p.m. On November 8, the Supreme Court of the Chuvash Republic started reviewing Ishutov’s case. On December 18, the Chuvash Supreme Court found Ishutov guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism” and other charges. He faces up to seven years in prison.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On July 30, a district court in St. Petersburg sentenced Fyodor Belov to five days’ administrative arrest for publicly displaying a tattoo of a swastika.
On March 18, a new law entered into force that stipulated fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. According to the Agora International Human Rights Group, in the first six months after the law’s entry into force, authorities opened 45 cases, 26 of which dealt with insults against President Putin. For example, on April 22, a court in the Novgorod region fined unemployed machinist Yuriy Kartyzhev 30,000 rubles ($471) for posting insulting comments about President Putin on social media.
On March 18, a new law, commonly characterized as a ban on “creating and spreading fake news,” also came into force. It prohibits “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and/or health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and/or public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” The fine for violating the law is up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for individuals, up to 200,000 rubles ($3,140) for officials, and up to 500,000 rubles ($7,850) for legal entities. In the event of repeated violations or violations with grave consequences, fines may go up to 1.5 million rubles ($23,600).
The law on “fake news” was applied multiple times during the year. For example, on July 29, a court in Nazran, Ingushetia, fined Murad Daskiyev, the head of the Council of Clans of the Ingush People, 15,000 rubles ($236). According to the court, Daskiyev knowingly distributed false information indicating that the head of the Republic of Ingushetia was preparing to sign a border agreement with the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia. Daskiyev maintained that the information he published was true. According to free expression watchdogs, authorities were motivated by a desire to suppress this information, following a large protest movement that emerged in Ingushetia in late 2018 after it signed a border agreement ceding land to the Republic of Chechnya.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, on August 19, Roskomnadzor threatened to block access to independent media outlet Meduza unless it deleted an August 8 article debunking myths about drug use, which Roskomnadzor claimed promoted drug use. Meduza restricted access to the article for its users in the country.
During the year authorities enforced a law banning the “propaganda of suicide” to prosecute or threaten to block independent media outlets. In August, Roskomnadzor issued three letters threatening to block access to the independent outlet Batenka, da vy Transformer unless it deleted several articles about the problem of suicide in the country. According to Roskomnadzor, the articles, which discussed the prevalence of and motivations behind suicide, promoted suicide. The outlet complied with the demands.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, on June 27, a court in the city of Saransk fined Idris Yusupov 6,000 rubles ($94) for organizing a screening of a film about Anastasiya Shevchenko, an activist under criminal prosecution for purported “cooperation” with the Open Russia movement, which had been declared an “undesirable foreign organization.” The court considered the film screening to be evidence of Yusupov’s own “cooperation” with Open Russia.
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which were permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through funding, either directly or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of December there were 10 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
On December 2, President Putin signed a law allowing authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this situation would further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual would also have to be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the new law range from 10,000 ($157) and five million rubles ($78,500).
On August 19, the State Duma created a commission to investigate alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. On September 27, the commission determined that German media outlet Deutsche Welle violated the law by reporting on unauthorized protests in Moscow and allegedly calling on individuals to take part in them. The commission urged the government to revoke Deutsche Welle’s license to operate in Russia, although as of December it continued to operate in the country. The commission also accused other foreign media outlets, such as Radio Liberty, BBC, Voice of America, and others, of violations during the “day of silence” that preceded the Moscow City Duma elections on September 8.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included three killings, 62 attacks, 169 detentions by law enforcement officers, 28 prosecutions, 30 threats, 14 politically motivated firings, and two attacks on media offices. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their security or livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. According to press reports, on May 5, Sergey Zaytsev, head of the Shirinskiy region of the Republic of Khakasia, shoved and body-slammed Ivan Litoman, a journalist from the state Rossiya-24 television channel. Litoman was interviewing Zaitsev and had asked him about allegedly poor-quality housing provided to persons left homeless by the 2015 wildfires. On May 27, the local Investigative Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the incident.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, during protests in Moscow on July 27 and August 3, police threatened journalists, obstructed their work, damaged their equipment, and forcefully detained them. According to freedom of assembly monitor OVD-Info, 14 journalists were detained in Moscow on August 3 alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists called these detentions, “a clear attempt to intimidate journalists and censor coverage.”
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes, such as drug possession, in order to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. In one such incident, on June 7, Moscow police detained investigative journalist Ivan Golunov and charged him with possessing and attempting to sell illegal drugs after purportedly finding amphetamines in his backpack. Following his arrest, officers reportedly beat Golunov and denied him access to his lawyer for 14 hours. Police also purportedly found drugs in Golunov’s apartment, which they searched following his arrest. Police posted nine photos of the alleged narcotics, but then took all but one of the photos down after evidence emerged indicating that the photos were taken in places other than Golunov’s apartment. Golunov and human rights advocates maintained that the drugs were planted on him in an attempt to imprison him in retaliation for his coverage of corruption, particularly in the funeral business. Following significant public outcry, police on July 11 dropped charges, released Golunov, and announced an investigation into the fabrication of charges against him. On December 19, during his annual year-end press conference, President Putin announced that five police officers who arrested Golunov were being investigated on felony charges. According to Meduza, the outlet for which Golunov worked, the investigation began on December 18.
There were reports of journalists being fired for their political views or unfavorable reporting about powerful political figures. For example, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on May 20, the leadership of the Moscow business daily Kommersant fired journalists Maxim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov for writing an article predicting that the influential speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, would soon be replaced. Eleven other journalists at the newspaper resigned in protest, and more than 200 others issued a joint statement warning that its readers would as of then be denied unbiased coverage. The newspaper denied that its owner, progovernment oligarch Alisher Usmanov, played a role in the decision, but sources that spoke to RSF and other media outlets indicated that Usmanov had made the decision. Human Rights Watch called the firing “the latest episode in the gutting” of the country’s independent media.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, on April 18, police raided the St. Petersburg office of the independent news website Rosbalt and seized several computers. According to the newspaper’s lawyer, the search was purportedly in connection with a libel allegation made by Usmanov, although the lawyer maintained that Rosbalt had not published anything about Usmanov. The newspaper’s editor noted that the computers seized were the ones used in a continuing investigation into a crime boss named Young Shakro. Police also searched the home of Rosbalt reporter Aleksandr Shvarev the same day.
There were reports of authorities using “tax inspections” that observers believed were intended to punish or pressure independent outlets. For example, on August 1, the editor of the independent media outlet Dozhd announced that it had received a notice of an unscheduled tax inspection, which she feared may have been in retaliation for the outlet’s extensive coverage of election-related protests in Moscow on July 27.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by unknown persons. On August 9, an unknown assailant in St. Petersburg attacked photojournalist Georgiy Markov, who specialized in photographing opposition protests. The assailant sprayed him with pepper spray and hit him on his head and chest. Law enforcement officials had detained Markov several times while he was photographing opposition protests, beating him at one in May.
There were reports of unidentified individuals or groups of individuals attacking the offices of independent media outlets. For example, on April 1, unknown persons ransacked the office of the newspaper Kommersant in Yekaterinburg, smashed the computers of the chief editor and accountant, took several hard drives, and left a message containing a death threat on the desk of the director of the newspaper. The journalists believed the attack was related to a book published with the participation of the newspaper’s staff about local criminal groups.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. For example, in late February a relative of Anatoliy Popov, the head of the Dobrovskiy region administration in Lipetsk oblast, threatened local journalist Dmitriy Pashinov over his critical reporting about Popov. On May 11, Pashinov was arrested and charged with “insulting a representative of the state” for allegedly cursing at a regional prosecutor in 2017, remarks Pashinov denied making.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom, and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were multiple reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, on September 24, Izvestiya published online but subsequently removed an article by military reporter Ilya Kramnik critical of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Within two days the newspaper removed Kramnik from its editorial staff and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. The country’s charge d’affaires in Great Britain accused the Ministry of Defense press service of pressuring Izvestiya to fire Kramnik.
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on August 7, press reports indicated that police in St. Petersburg had distributed notices to local printing presses, informing them that it is unacceptable to fulfill orders for materials that discredit the government or political figures, that offend a person’s honor and dignity, or that promote unsanctioned demonstrations during the pre-electoral period. The printing presses were instructed to turn over orders for any such materials to police.
On January 28, after allegedly receiving information that the business was about to print “extremist” material, police arrived at the St. Petersburg printing house where activist Mikhail Borisov worked. It later became known that Borisov had been preparing to print posters criticizing acting governor Aleksandr Beglov. Police seized four computers but did not detain Borisov since he had not yet printed the posters. The printing house later fired him from his job.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread. For example, on January 21, the Yaroslavl affiliate of the radio station Ekho Moskvy canceled a planned interview with LGBTI activists after receiving threats, including from local officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on March 23, the press reported that the head of the federal space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had filed a libel complaint against two websites with the Prosecutor General’s Office, which referred the matter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministry opened a criminal libel investigation into the two websites, RusPress and Kompromat-Ural, which had alleged in late 2018 that Rogozin had used money from the Roscosmos budget to pay for public relations campaigns to burnish his personal reputation and had bribed the heads of media outlets to remove unfavorable coverage of him.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, on June 14, security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik, at his home. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. The charges carry up to a 20-year prison term. Human rights defenders emphasized that the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case, and they maintained that the case against him was fabricated. As of December Gadzhiev remained in detention awaiting trial after a court in Makhachkala extended his pretrial detention through January 13, 2020. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” On September 20, authorities charged Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva with “public justification of terrorism in the media.” She faced up to seven years in jail for comments she made on a local radio station in November 2018 about a suicide bombing at an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. Although she never voiced approval of the bomber’s actions, she suggested that the government’s restrictions on peaceful expressions of dissent may make individuals more likely to resort to violence. In July before these charges were brought, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) added Prokopyeva to its list of terrorists and extremists because of her comments, resulting in the freezing of her bank accounts and the seizure of her passport. According to press reports, in early October officials at the Pskov Investigative Committee summoned for interrogation several journalists and public figures who had spoken out in support of Prokopyeva and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements about the contents of their conversation.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.
On May 1, President Putin signed a new law on internet sovereignty, the provisions of which mostly took effect on November 1. The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. Internet advocates asserted the measure would allow for greater surveillance by intelligence agencies and increase the ability of state authorities to control information and block content. Authorities in the Ural Federal District in central Russia began carrying out tests of such equipment in September (with the goal of covering the entire region by the end of the year), but media noted both that the tests resulted in network failures and slower web traffic, and that prohibited services like the Telegram messaging service remained accessible. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. Telecom operators were expected to have until January 1, 2021, to start using the country’s DNS; those who refuse would be disconnected from data exchange points.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing penalties on companies that refuse to localize Russian users’ data from 5,000 rubles ($78) to 6 million rubles ($94,200), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($283,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In April a Moscow court fined Facebook and Twitter 3,000 rubles ($47) each in separate proceedings for failing to inform authorities where they stored the personal data of users.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing fines on companies that refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. Previously the fine was up to 1 million rubles ($15,700), but the new law raised it to 6 million rubles ($94,200). The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of four million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On July 18, Roskomnadzor fined Google 700,000 rubles ($11,000) for not removing links to sites banned by the government from its search results.
The law requires owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.” On April 19, the Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge to the law brought by the human rights NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In June Roskomnadzor announced that it would block nine VPN services that refused its March demand to register with authorities. At least some of these services remained effective within the country as of September.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. For example, individuals who were detained during the August 3 protests in Moscow and whose cell phones police confiscated told Novaya Gazeta about repeated attempts to hack their email accounts in the days following their release. One protester, whose cell phone was tracking its geolocation, reported that his cell phone had apparently been transported to a location in the Moscow suburbs while he was in detention.
There were reports of the disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, authorities in Ingushetia restricted access to mobile internet on numerous occasions during mass protests in March against a land swap with the Republic of Chechnya. During the July 27 and August 3 protests over the Moscow City Duma elections, authorities switched off mobile internet coverage in the protest area.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government took new steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks and curricula. For example, on February 6, the press reported that economics professor Igor Lipsits was informed by his publisher that the economics textbook he had authored had been banned for use in the country’s schools. An expert review by the Russian Education Academy (a government body) had reportedly concluded that examples used in the textbook did not “promote love for the Motherland.” In order to have his book approved for use in schools, the academy suggested that Lipsits add information about the government’s “plans for the next economic breakthrough” and discuss how other government economic policies improve a person’s “sense of pride in the country.”
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, political views, or all. During the summer the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) combined the departments of political science and public administration, resulting in layoffs for a number of professors who reportedly held views sympathetic to the opposition. The university also decided not to renew contracts for several staff members; political analyst and HSE lecturer Aleksandr Kynev said he believed this was for purely political reasons. Yelena Sirotkina, another HSE professor, stated that she resigned voluntarily but under pressure from the university administration. In May the university shut down a student talk show after students invited opposition activist Lyubov Sobol to appear as a guest. According to Meduza, the university administration had made prior attempts to censor the show’s content.
There were reports that authorities restricted academic travel or contacts. On July 13, the Ministry of Education and Science issued new rules obliging academics working at institutions under the ministry to seek approval for any meetings with foreigners. The rules call for institutions to notify the ministry five days in advance of such meetings, a minimum of two academics to be present during meetings, and participants to file a written report that includes passport scans of their foreign interlocutors. Under the rules noncitizens are not allowed to use any notetaking or recording equipment during meetings without prior authorization from the state.
On February 27, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy sent a letter to the heads of the country’s regions, ordering them to ensure that exhibits at museums under their purview “embody the state’s priorities.”
During the year authorities in the Republic of Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. On July 15, the Chechen Minister of Culture announced that the songs of local singers Ayub and Askhab Vakharagov “violate the norms of Chechen culture.” In August, Chechen security forces detained and reportedly held them without charge for two weeks.
On September 24, a Moscow court returned the case against well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov to the prosecutor over errors in the indictment. The prosecutor appealed this decision, however, and submitted new materials to the court, which the court accepted. Serebrennikov had been on trial since November 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. Serebrennikov was released on bail on April 8. As of December the date for his new trial had not been announced.
Authorities often censored or shut down cultural events or displays they considered offensive or that expressed views in opposition to the government and in some cases initiated criminal proceedings against organizers. For example, on October 7, authorities in Moscow disrupted the opening of a modern art exhibit on police violence against protesters that took place during election-related demonstrations in July and August in Moscow. Shortly before the opening, regular Moscow police, officers from Moscow’s “antiextremism” police, city authorities, the state consumer protection service, the fire department, and members of a progovernment extreme nationalist organization arrived at the gallery and blocked individuals from entering the exhibit.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, in May activists from two progovernment nationalist movements tried to disrupt the annual LGBTI film festival Side-by-Side in Moscow. They blocked the entrance to the venue, shouted homophobic slurs, and threw ammonia on a Canadian diplomat. According to festival organizers, police officers observed all the disruptions but did nothing to intervene. The venue also received multiple bomb threats over the course of the festival, which led police to evacuate the buildings and delay the start of each film screening by several hours.
There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” they cancel the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, media reported that authorities visited the music venues at which the rapper Face was to perform in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in late August, after which the organizers canceled both concerts. The venues cited low ticket sales, although the rapper’s team claimed the tickets had sold quite well. Face had performed during an August 3 opposition protest in Moscow and had also published lyrics critical of the government. Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora International Human Rights Center, claimed that the FSB had made a “blacklist” of musicians whose concerts are supposed to be disrupted.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While numerous public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets, and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Penalties may be up to 300,000 rubles ($4,710) for individuals, 600,000 rubles ($9,420) for organizers, and one million rubles ($15,700) for groups or entities. Protesters with multiple violations within six months may be fined up to one million rubles ($15,700) or imprisoned for up to five years.
A December 2018 law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($471 to $785), 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. For example, on July 27 and August 3, security forces detained an estimated 2,500 persons during unsanctioned protests in support of independent candidates to the Moscow City Duma. Although the majority were detained briefly and received no criminal or administrative charges, several hundred protesters received fines, jail sentences, or both.
Following the July 27 unsanctioned protest in Moscow, authorities charged 18 individuals with “inciting and participating in mass riots.” The Investigative Committee then changed the charges in several of the cases to “causing harm to law enforcement officers.” Although the charges of “inciting and participating in mass riots” were dropped against eight of the accused, all of these eight individuals received jail sentences of up to 3.4 years after being found guilty of other charges (including “causing harm to law enforcement officers”). As of December the court had not sentenced the other individuals initially charged.
On September 5, a Moscow court sentenced computer programmer Konstantin Kotov to four years in prison for “repeated violations” of protest regulations. The court found that Kotov had “disregarded basic constitutional principles” by taking part in several unsanctioned demonstrations within a 180-day period. Kotov had been detained at several peaceful protests since March, the last being on August 10 as he was exiting a metro station to attend a protest. Memorial considered Kotov to be a political prisoner.
Authorities charged individuals with protest-related offenses for their social media posts about protests. On August 14, police charged blogger Andrey Trofimov from Sergiyev Posad with organizing an unsanctioned demonstration because he retweeted two protest announcements made by opposition leaders. Trofimov maintained he played no other role in organizing the protests.
Police often broke up demonstrations that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 18, police beat protesters demonstrating against the construction of a landfill in Likino-Dulyovo in the Moscow region. Eyewitnesses claimed that at least four persons sustained serious injuries as a result, including a broken arm and fractured ribs.
Participants in demonstrations and even bystanders were at times subjected to threats and physical violence. On July 27, members of the National Guard, who had been deployed to the unsanctioned protest in Moscow, detained graphic designer Konstantin Konovalov, a local resident who had been on a run in his neighborhood before the protest began. In so doing they broke one of his legs. On September 17, a Moscow court fined Konovalov 10,000 rubles ($157) for taking part in an unsanctioned protest, despite the fact that the event was set to begin several hours after his detention.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on September 19, Omsk police briefly detained Moscow activist Vera Oleynikova, who had staged a single-person picket calling for freedom for prisoners of conscience in front of the Omsk FSB headquarters. She claimed that police took her to a police station and refused to allow a defense lawyer to see her.
Authorities continued to deprive LGBTI persons and their supporters of rights of free assembly. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that LGBTI persons should be allowed to engage in public activities, the law prohibiting “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) provides grounds to deny LGBTI activists and supporters the right of assembly and was often used to interrupt public demonstrations by LGBTI activists. In November 2018 the ECHR ruled that the country’s blanket refusal to grant permission to hold public assemblies related to LGBTI matters could not be justified by public safety concerns and constituted a violation of the right to freedom of assembly.
On August 3, police and the National Guard in St. Petersburg forcefully dispersed approximately 50 single-person picketers advocating for the LGBTI community after city authorities turned down their request to hold a pride parade. Law enforcement authorities detained 12 persons, three of whom were hospitalized due to injuries that human rights activists said were the result of police brutality.
Moscow authorities refused to allow an LGBTI pride parade for the 14th consecutive year, notwithstanding a 2010 ECHR ruling that the denial violated the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom from discrimination.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use a law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, to stigmatize, and in some cases to halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 76 NGOs. NGOs designated “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. On December 16, President Putin signed a law raising the fine for noncompliance from 10,000 rubles ($157) to 50,000 rubles ($785) for individuals and from 500,000 rubles ($7,850) to 1 million rubles ($15,700) for legal entities. “Serious violations” may result in fines of 100,000 rubles ($1,570) for citizens and up to 5 million rubles ($78,500) for legal entities.
Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, human rights activist Lev Ponomarev’s three NGOs received fines totaling more than one million rubles ($15,700) for not marking their materials as originating from a “foreign agent.” On November 1, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Ponomaryov’s NGO “For Human Rights” due to purported violations of the law, including the law on “foreign agents.”
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 19 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the Free Russia Foundation, the Ukrainian World Congress, People in Need, and the Atlantic Council. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if that group is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities, any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found to be continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
During the year authorities began for the first time to impose criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On January 21, authorities raided the home of Open Russia activist Anastasiya Shevchenko, arrested her, and charged her with “cooperation” with an “undesirable foreign organization.” (Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017.) She faced up to seven years in prison. On January 23, she was placed under house arrest. Shevchenko was prevented from visiting her 17-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized in critical condition, until hours before she died on January 30. As of December her trial had not begun, and she remained under house arrest. Memorial considered Shevchenko to be a political prisoner. Several other Open Russia activists were also under criminal investigation.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that receive support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism as a tool to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision prohibited all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country, effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country and 395 regional branches were formally placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, a procedural move following the Supreme Court’s decision. As of December, nine members of Jehovah’s Witnesses had received jail sentences of up to six years for taking part in the activities of a banned extremist organization, and between 200 and 300 individuals were under criminal investigation (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, the NGO Russian Socio-Ecological Union documented seven physical attacks on environmental activists the first five months of the year. On March 10, an unknown assailant stabbed environmentalist Denis Shtroo in Kaluga, who died of his wounds four days later. Shtroo had opposed the construction of a landfill in a nearby village, and his friends and relatives believed that he was attacked due to his activism. As of December his killing remained unsolved.
In multiple cases authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a new location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 3.5 million citizens are unable to leave the country because of debts.
Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations. On June 4, the Supreme Court upheld this policy.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary basis. For example, according to human rights groups, on January 29, Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant citizenship to Blagoveshchensk resident Evgeniy Kim, rendering him stateless since he had given up his Uzbek citizenship earlier. Kim was serving a 3-year, 9-month prison sentence for “extremism” for studying the works of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and was considered by Memorial to be a political prisoner. Upon his release from prison on April 10, Kim was notified that he was present in the country in violation of migration law. As of September he was held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, the country of his birth, although Uzbek authorities refused to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2018. Of the 5,900 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 3,600 were new displacements. According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 25,359 in the beginning of 2016 to 19,327 in January 2017. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, with between 3,500 and 4,000 persons displaced due to the First Chechen War in 1994-96.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. Media reports indicated that not all individuals displaced by weather-related events received the assistance that the federal government initially promised them. For example, a RIA Novosti report in August concluded that authorities rejected 15 percent of the applications of those who applied for housing assistance after they were displaced by flooding in the Irkutsk region in August, leaving them with no shelter at the onset of winter.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. NGOs also reported racially motivated assaults by civilians.
UNHCR reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum and refugee problems.
NGOs reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated within the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, the GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise, they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had a reasonable ground to fear persecution. There were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions.
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties between senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin. UNHCR reported several cases of refoulement during the year but could not provide data on its extent.
In one example of clandestine detention and repatriation, on February 14, officials arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned to Tajikistan opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who had been living as a refugee in the Netherlands since 2015. He traveled to Moscow to attend a conference but claimed authorities acting at the behest of the Tajik government detained him and put him on a plane to Dushanbe. According to Human Rights Watch, Tajik security services were present at his detention, and during the flight they put a bag over his head and beat him. After two weeks in Tajikistan, authorities released Gadoyev and allowed him to return to the Netherlands after the intervention of European governments and human rights activists.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($520) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived refugees and temporary asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. Except for Ukrainians, GAMI approved a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum.
Human rights organizations noted the country’s tendency during the year not to accept more Ukrainian and Syrian applicants for refugee status and temporary asylum. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin. Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration. The NGO Civic Action Committee reported that approximately a third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection in the form of temporary asylum to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 6,000 persons during the year. A person who did not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, to register candidates for public office, to access media outlets, and to conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the March 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted, “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state-founded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of the media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers widely noted that the most serious potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous criminal conviction that appeared politically motivated.
In a statement on the 2016 State Duma elections, the OSCE’s election observation mission noted, “Democratic commitments continue to be challenged and the electoral environment was negatively affected by restrictions to fundamental freedoms and political rights, firmly controlled media and a tightening grip on civil society…Local authorities did not always treat the candidates equally, and instances of misuse of administrative resources were noted.”
The September 8 elections of 19 governors and several dozen local and regional legislative bodies were marked by similar allegations of government interference and manipulation. Journalists and observers reported numerous violations, especially in the run-up to the Moscow City Duma election and the St. Petersburg gubernatorial and legislative elections. These included assaults, arrests, harassment, coordinated police raids on the homes of opposition candidates, and widespread restrictions on the ability of independent candidates to register to appear on the ballot. For example, in a case that was emblematic of many others, opposition activist and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin collected the 4,500 voter signatures for his district candidacy to the Moscow City Duma, but election officials refused to register his candidacy, citing technical flaws in many of the signatures he had collected, often based on the assessments of government handwriting experts. Although many of the voters whose signatures had been disqualified personally appealed to the election commission to confirm that their signatures were authentic, the commission would not reconsider its decision.
St. Petersburg’s gubernatorial and legislative elections were marred by multiple claims of fraud. The strongest challenger to the incumbent governor, Aleksandr Beglov, dropped out a week before the election, claiming the deck was stacked against him. The election-monitoring NGO Golos documented cases in which local election authorities double-counted votes in order to ensure that progovernment candidates won and other indications of fraud. It took more than a week for some municipalities to announce results, leading observers to speculate that they were falsified after the real results were rejected.
After the elections, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova accused local authorities of trying to cover up electoral violations instead of reporting them through proper channels. On September 25, she specifically accused Vyacheslav Makarov, the speaker of the regional legislative assembly in St. Petersburg, of interfering in the elections and recommended that St. Petersburg Election Commission head Viktor Minenko resign. Nonetheless, neither Minenko nor Makarov faced any consequences, and the election results were certified.
Authorities sought to restrict the work of independent election monitors and promote government-sponsored monitoring. Observers were prohibited from being accredited to more than one polling station, limiting the ability of civil society to monitor elections. Critics contended that the law made it difficult for domestic election monitors to conduct surprise inspections due to provisions requiring observers to register with authorities, including the polling station they intended to monitor, three days before elections. Burdensome registration regulations also hampered the work of journalists wishing to monitor elections as well as independent or nonpartisan groups, whose monitors registered as journalists for their affiliated publications.
During the September 8 elections, observers also faced threats and physical obstacles, including from groups of athletes affiliated with authorities. Media reported that local administrations hired these athletes (some of whom were local thugs affiliated with government-sponsored sports clubs) to threaten opposition candidates, intimidate observers, and interfere with the vote count, especially in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg municipal election commission member Mikhail Losev reported that when he attempted to submit a complaint about voting violations on election day, five athletic-looking men approached and threatened him, telling him he need to make the “correct” choice, intimating that he risked being attacked.
Authorities continued to hamper the efforts of Golos to take part in the election process, since its work was curtailed by a law prohibiting NGOs listed as “foreign agents,” as well as by continuing harassment and intimidation by authorities.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for office was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition candidates and political parties. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Electoral Commission for certification. Nominees from parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid.
Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, by political parties in single-mandate districts, by political parties on their federal list, or may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. Only political parties that overcame the 5-percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures, while parties that did not must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.
Gubernatorial candidates nominated by registered political parties are not required to collect signatures from members of the public, although self-nominated candidates are. The law also requires gubernatorial candidates not nominated by a registered party to meet a “municipal filter” requirement. Such candidates must obtain signatures of support from a defined portion of municipal deputies, the portion of which varies by region, as well as collect signatures from at least one deputy in each of a specified portion of municipal council districts.
Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally, and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements. For example, three candidates in the St. Petersburg gubernatorial election admitted that they passed through the municipal filter without having gone to municipal council districts to collect deputies’ signatures. At the same time, Yabloko party candidate Boris Vishnevskiy failed to pass the filer because he faced opposition in municipalities controlled by the ruling party, United Russia.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration. On May 27, authorities denied opposition leader Aleksey Navalny’s application to register a political party for the ninth time in six years, a decision that observers believed was politically motivated.
Opposition politicians often faced violence and threats. Media outlets described a spate of threats and attacks on independent candidates who tried to register for the St. Petersburg municipal elections. For example, on July 26, an unidentified assailant attacked Navalny associate Aleksandr Shurshev when he tried to submit candidate registration documents to the local election commission. He claimed that a guard who stood nearby did nothing to stop the attack.
Authorities continued to engage in a pattern of harassment, including threats of violence, against Navalny and his supporters (see sections 1.d., 2.a., and 2.b.). On July 24, a district court in Moscow sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail for encouraging Muscovites to participate in an unsanctioned protest. Several municipal deputy candidates linked to Navalny faced threats and obstacles from unidentified persons and claimed that government officials did not intervene.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, according to media reports, a group of 30 masked men (some of whom were on horseback) attacked a bus carrying journalists and observers from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in the Republic of Tuva on the eve of the September 8 elections. The assailants threatened the driver and the passengers, punctured the bus’s tires, and demanded that the group abandon the trip. One LDPR candidate named the head of the Tuva Equestrian Federation as a participant in the attack.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women held approximately 17 percent of legislative seats during the year. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their concerns. Official harassment of independent NGOs continued and in many instances intensified, particularly of groups that focused on election monitoring, exposing corruption, and addressing human rights abuses. NGO activities and international humanitarian assistance in the North Caucasus were severely restricted. Some officials, including the ombudsman for human rights, regional ombudsman representatives, and Mikhail Fedotov, who was the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council until late October, regularly interacted and cooperated with NGOs.
Authorities continued to use a variety of laws to harass, stigmatize, and in some cases halt the operation of domestic and foreign human rights NGOs (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
Officials often displayed hostility towards the activities of human rights organizations and suggested that their work was unpatriotic and detrimental to national security. For example, on May 15, the head of the Federal Prison Service, Gennadiy Kornienko, called human rights defenders who brought cases to the ECHR that involved abuses taking place in prisons “odious persons.”
Authorities continued to apply a number of indirect tactics to suppress or close domestic NGOs, including the application of various laws and harassment in the form of prosecution, investigations, fines, and raids (see sections 1.e. and 2.b.).
Authorities generally refused to cooperate with NGOs that were critical of their activities or listed as a foreign agent. International human rights NGOs had almost no presence east of the Ural Mountains. A few local NGOs addressed human rights problems in these regions but often chose not to work on politically sensitive topics to avoid retaliation by local authorities.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Authorities refused to cooperate with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism rapporteur investigating human rights abuses in the Republic of Chechnya in 2018 and did not permit him to visit the country.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Some government institutions continued to promote human rights and intervened in selected abuse complaints, despite widespread doubt as to these institutions’ effectiveness.
Many observers did not consider the 126-member Civic Chamber, composed of government-appointed members from civil society organizations, to be an effective check on the government.
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC) is an advisory body to the president tasked with monitoring systemic problems in legislation and individual human rights cases, developing proposals to submit to the president and government, and monitoring their implementation. The president selects some council members by decree, and not all members operated independently. On October 21, President Putin overhauled the HRC, replacing its head, Mikhail Fedotov, with Valeriy Fadeyev, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party. Officially, Fedotov was dismissed because he had turned 70, the age limit for service in the government. President Putin could have issued a waiver that would have allowed him to stay on, leading human rights activists to speculate that authorities wanted an HRC head who would be more loyal to the president and less critical of restrictions on political freedoms. Some members of the HRC who were well-respected human rights defenders were also dismissed at the same time as Fedotov, compounding observers’ concerns.
Human rights ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova was viewed as a figure with very limited autonomy. The country had regional ombudsmen in all its regions with responsibilities similar to Moskalkova’s. Their effectiveness varied significantly, and local authorities often undermined their independence.