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Update No: 378  (26/07/12)

Freedom of information and expression is being squeezed further as new bills to monitor the financial activity of NGOs, make slander and libel a criminal offence and blacklist certain websites are presented to parliament. Two Islamic spiritual leaders are attacked in Tatarstan, signalling that the violence in the North Caucasus is spreading. Russia takes its final step towards entering the World Trade Organisation and presses Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to help secure its borders in anticipation of the 2014 US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Three months into Putin's third term as president and freedom of information in Russia is already being squeezed, along with respect for human rights. On July 11, the Russian parliament approved a bill that activists fear will introduce Internet censorship as it allows the authorities to blacklist sites that it deems troublesome.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev strongly backed the law. "The Internet must be free. Secondly, it should be regulated by a set of rules, which mankind has yet to work out, and it's a very difficult process because we cannot regulate everything, nor can we leave [the Internet] outside the legal realm," Medvedev said.

"Thirdly, the people's basic rights and freedoms must be upheld, including the right to information on the one hand and the right to be protected against harmful content on the other hand."

The bill was rushed through parliament just one week after the initial reading and is expected to become law in November. It is being promoted as a way of tackling child pornography online. Under the new law, sites that include child pornography; instructions on how to commit suicide or the promotion of illegal drugs can be closed without trial. Other offending sites can't be added to the blacklist without a court order but site owners will have the right to petition against the court's decision. Still, human rights groups and leading Internet companies such as Yandex, the Mail.ru Group and Google fear that the way in which the law will be enforced is open to manipulation which could harm freedom of information.

Hot on the heels of the Internet law, the lower house of parliament approved two other bills that limit freedoms further – one that would impose tough new rules on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding, and another that makes slander a criminal offence. Both measures must still be approved by the upper house and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, but both are merely a formality.

The NGO bill, which was approved on July 13, is aimed at regulating "foreign agents" who receive funding from abroad. It seeks to tighten control on foreign-funded NGOs by requiring that they submit reports on their activities to the Russian authorities. Under the bill, the targeted NGOs are also required to file detailed quarterly financial reports, and will be subject to regular and unannounced inspections. Lawmaker Andrei Vorobyov, of the ruling United Russia party, defended the bill, saying that many NGOs were exempted.

"Non-governmental organisations that are involved in the protection of children, charity, the protection of flora and fauna, as well as religious organisations have been excluded from the list," Vorobyov said.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a parliamentary deputy belonging to the A Just Russia party, pointed out that the exemptions apply to sections of Russian society that aren't generally subject to prosecution anyway.

“[These] are the ones founded by the church, the state, and business,” she said. “In this way we have clearly established whom in this country we consider to be universally untouchable and immune to any criminal prosecution."

Many people in Russia equate the term "foreign agent" with espionage and critics have denounced the measure as part of a crackdown on civil liberties, that has accompanied Putin's return for a third presidential term. Parliamentary deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who leads the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (it’s neither Liberal nor Democratic) and supports the NGO bill, even pointed out that the law targets prominent political activists who have been calling for fresh Presidential elections.

“The law concerns a small group of people, such as A Just Russia [Duma Deputies] Ponomaryov and [Gennady] Gudkov, or Bolotnaya [Square protest leaders], [Aleksei] Navalny, [Boris] Nemtsov, [Sergei] Yashin,” Zhirinovsky said. “It concerns only five or seven people. But because of their extremist activities, we had to modernise our legislation."

The other legislation approved at the same time – the slander bill – further rolls back progress in Russia by making libel and slander a criminal offence, once again. When it comes into effect, the new law will introduce fines of up to five million roubles ($152,000) for printing or saying things that aren't true and are meant to damage someone's reputation.

The bill undoes reforms made by Medvedev last December when he decriminalised libel and made it an administrative offence instead. Europe is dismayed. Andreas Gross, from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) who monitors Russia's commitment to its obligations as a Council of Europe member, says the new legislation is anti-democratic.

"It's a law which is an invitation to punish critics you don't like, and it does not respect the fact that in a democratic society everybody needs critics in order to learn," Gross said. "And the more power you have, the more critics you need. This is exactly one of the things I would like to discuss even with the highest authorities, because I wonder why in fact they're showing such weakness. The Russian authorities are strong enough, and they don't have to be afraid."

These latest bills form a string of measures designed to control society, signalling an increasing lack of respect for human rights. A law was introduced four months ago that makes it an offence to disseminate homosexual “propaganda” to minors. Although homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, gay people continue to be discriminated against and the United Russia party said the law was aimed at protecting children, despite objections from civil rights groups. The legislation has already been put into practice. On May 27, about a dozen gay rights activists, along with Orthodox Christian activists who oppose homosexuality, were arrested during a gay pride parade in Moscow. In June, 14 people were convicted of administrative violations when an unsanctioned gay rights parade was held in St Petersberg. The city refused to allow a similar march to take place on July 4.

Along with restrictions on personal choice and expression, the potential for discontent is rising, due to the authorities' use of scapegoats to cover up mistakes. The public is incensed at the Kremlin's handling of the flash floods on 6-7 July that killed more than 170 people in the Black Sea region of Krasnodar. Four days after the disaster, the Ministry for Emergency Situations said that 28,000 people still didn't have access to gas supplies or fresh water and the estimated cost of the damage would be around $133 million. But rather than going directly to the devastated area, Putin (who finally showed up in Krasnodar on July 15) called for an investigation into the region's response to the flooding, blaming local bodies for reacting too slowly and firing at least two local officials.

Elsewhere, Russia's conflicts in the Caucasus continue to escalate, and is spreading into Tatarstan. On 19 July, two (moderate) ‘establishment’ Islamic spiritual leaders were attacked in the capital Kazan. Mufti Ildus Faizov suffered broken legs and other injuries in a car bombing. His former deputy and close associate, Valiulla Yakupov, was shot dead in a different district of the city. The brazen attacks, which occurred mid-morning, are rare in Tatarstan, which has seen little of the violence against religious leaders common in other Muslim-majority republics in the North Caucasus.

Yakupov had been a powerful member of Tatarstan's Muftiyat spiritual board for around 20 years and had recently become the head of its education department. Both he and Faizov had close ties to the Kremlin and had been involved in centralising Tatarstan's Muslim structures. The aim of that plan was to curb what they saw as more radical forms of Islam, such as Wahhabism, which has been blamed for a rise in sectarian violence in the North Caucasus.

An Investigative Committee spokesman said: "After Faizov was elected chief mufti of Tatarstan, he adopted a tough stance on organisations professing radical Islamic views in the republic. Faizov was blocking the activities of organisations propagating this trend in Islam."

Emphasising the threat to other officials in the Caucasus, Putin said that these “terrorist attacks” sent a "serious signal" to authorities. That serious signal is being continuously sent in the North Caucasus. The day before the spiritual leaders were attacked, two policemen from the Volga region of Kirov Oblast were killed in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The policemen had been sent to Nalchik to arrest suspects allegedly involved in an Islamic insurgents' attack on Nalchik in October, 2005 when an unknown group of men opened fire on them. One policeman died at the scene, the other died later in hospital from his wounds.

While unable to resolve conflict within its own territory, the Kremlin is moving full steam ahead to protect its outer borders. On July 11, Kazakh air defence chief Nurzhan Mukanov said that Kazakhstan and Russia are expected sign an agreement next year to create a joint regional air-defence system. The plan is to make the Kazakh air force responsible for defending Russian airspace along the border with Kazakhstan and the country with the help of a new delivery of Russian S-300 air-defence systems.

Russia already has similar agreements with Armenia and Belarus, but it is becoming more pressing that the Kremlin more effectively defends its borders on its Central Asian side given that the US and NATO will have withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan by 2014, leaving the region vulnerable to increasing instability in the form of jihadists and others..

Moscow is seeking to keep troops in Tajikistan, a former Soviet Central Asian state that borders Afghanistan, but talks with the government there have gone on for months without resolution. Russia's 201st Motorised Rifle Division of 7,500 servicemen is currently stationed at a base near the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, but the lease agreement is due to run out in 2014. Time is running out and the Kremlin is beginning to jump the gun. On July 17, Russian Army Ground Forces commander, General Vladimir Chirkin, said that Tajik officials had generally accepted the Kremlin’s demands for "no-fee operations", allowing Russia's Rifle Division to carry on using the base for 49 years. But Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi contradicted Chirkin, saying that his statement was “groundless”. Zarifi said that talks regarding the military base are continuing and would be held "behind firmly closed doors."

Elsewhere on the world stage, Russia has harvested the fruits of its negotiations with global partners. On July 18, the Federation Council approved a bill ratifying Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), meaning that it will shortly become law. That moment was the culmination of nearly 20 years of negotiations with global trade partners to clear the way for Russia's WTO membership, which was finally accepted last December.

At the same time, Russia continues to support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and appears unlikely to have a meeting of minds with Western countries, who back the sunni opposition. That could escalate tensions between Moscow and Europe if there is regime change in Damascus, or a dramatic shift in the fighting that forces the parties to re-evaluate their stances.

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