Russian human rights leader comments on the government's attempt to silence democracy advocates


Anna at the John Smith Memorial Trust 2009 Istanbul Conference
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John Smith Memorial Trust

As the political climate becomes increasingly more repressive in Russia, civil society organizations have come under threat by the government.

A new law requires advocacy oriented non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving foreign funding to register as foreign agents, jeopardizing their financial lifeline and reputation. In addition, nation-wide inspections have threatened to suspend activities of organizations advancing and defending democratic practices.

Sevortian has an esteemed career as a journalist and human rights defender. In 2010, Sevortian became the director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. Previously, she was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At present, she is participating in a mid-career course at Harvard's Kennedy School.Anna Sevortian, a 2006 Draper Hills Summer Fellows alumna, comments on the unfolding situation in Russia - reminiscent of Soviet times - and the tough trade-offs Russian NGOs must make to secure their survival in this climate of intimidation. However, Sevortian remains hopeful that the fight for human rights will continue despite these adverse circumstances.


Can you describe the current political climate in Russia?

It is a sad thing to say, but the current political climate in Russia quickly grows more regressive and repressive. Human Rights Watch's 2013 annual report describes it as probably the worst crackdown on fundamental freedoms in the country’s post-Soviet history.

This environment has an immediate toll on the society’s collective thinking and ability to act. For example, the anti-Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LBST) legislation that bans so-called “LGBT propaganda” literally returns Russia back to the times when homosexuality was a criminal offence.


What is the new foreign agent law?

This bill introduced a requirement for NGOs that receive foreign funding and are involved in any sort of “political activity” (advocacy is the closest English word for the definition given in the law) to formally register as “foreign agents.” For a native speaker of Russian a “foreign agent” means a foreign spy.

The law was passed in July 2012 and this spring there has been a nation-wide campaign of inspections of NGOs, sometimes run in a clearly intimidating manner.

Currently over 60 groups received and are trying to appeal warnings or orders to register. Many of these groups are prominent voices of Russian civil society. According to the law, those who fail to register within six months may be suspended without a court order.

The introduction of the “foreign agent” law brings back the heavily loaded and hateful rhetoric of the 20th century. This is detrimental to the freedom of thought in Russia.


What is the impact of the “foreign agent” law on NGO activity in Russia?

Since Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term started in May 2012, the authorities acquired broad and often abusive powers to restrict freedom of assembly and association. The new NGO law is only one of the tools used for that purpose.

In addition, Russia’s treason definition was amended and now allows penalization for international human rights advocacy. NGOs are being marginalized and demonized as foreign spies. As we speak, advocacy groups in Russia need to make a tough choice - whether to comply with largely illegitimate laws to survive or, perhaps, see their own demise in the near future. This is possible both due to political or purely financial reasons.


Can you describe your experience leading the Human Rights Watch office in Russia?

Trained as a journalist, I worked for rights organizations for almost all of my life. However, Human Rights Watch was certainly something new - being part of a dynamic, global and highly professional team. As director of the Russia office, I spent a lot of time travelling and conducting advocacy on human rights issues in Russia and Belarus, talking to journalists and doing research. Ensuring the well-being of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow became all the more significant as the new wave of crackdown on civil society started last summer.


What were some of the issue areas you worked on at Human Rights Watch?

Our priority themes are very much those “on the frontline” and include: Russian civil society, the situation in the North Caucasus, implementation of the European Court of Human Rights’ judgments, migrant workers and more recently – the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

During my time at Human Rights Watch we started research on palliative care and access to morphine for terminally ill cancer patients. Social and economic rights are typically less visible in the Human Rights Watch Russia portfolio and we were glad to take this one on board. In Russia approximately 300,000 cancer and HIV/AIDS patients die every year and only one-fifth of them receive access to adequate pain treatment.


How has Human Rights Watch been impacted by the foreign agent law, if at all?

Human Right Watch’s status in Russia is a representative office of an international NGO. The “foreign agent” law has primarily targeted Russian NGOs. However, for all NGOs - including representative offices - this law stipulates tougher reporting requirements and institutional as well as individual legal and criminal penalties for non-compliance.

Under this new legislation, Human Rights Watch as well as many NGOs were visited by governmental inspectors this spring. Most importantly, the law has affected many of our local counterparts – so the environment we all operate is a very different from one before 2012.


How can the international community intervene - if at all -to help support the efforts of civil society in Russia?

The international community should watch and be vocal about the human rights situation in Russia, especially in the light of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics. It is essential that issues around Russian civil society are raised at every bilateral and multilateral talk with the Russian Federation. Of course, international solidarity actions are crucial for moral support. These days all you need to show solidarity is to go online.


What does all of this mean for the future of human rights in Russia?

It has been a very challenging time for human rights in Russia, a difficult time. However, the human rights groups survived and actually even managed to develop in the Soviet era. Human rights is about strong principles so I believe this work will not discontinue at any given time. Indeed, the scale of it can be diminished. But change in Russia can also happen very quickly.


To learn more about the current situation in Russia, you can follow the Open Democracy Russia series on human rights, which features daily pieces by prominent Russian NGO activists - including former Draper Hills Summer Fellows alumni Yuri Dzhibladze (05) . The series is guest edited by Sevortian and Tanya Lokshina (05) of Human Rights Watch. Please visit: