David J. Kramer is president of the nonprofit Freedom House, which recently published the report “Contending With Putin’s Russia: A Call for American Leadership.”
Overlooked amid the focus on the Boston bombings and the suspects’ links to Russia is the latest example of the systematic abuse of human rights under Vladimir Putin.
Alexei Navalny, 36, is on trial this week on charges of stealing $500,000 from a timber firm in 2009, a case that was previously closed for lack of evidence. He is the most recent victim of the Putin regime’s use of government agencies and courts to punish and marginalize opponents.
Russian officials have opened several spurious investigations into Navalny, designed to publicly discredit him. His family and friends are also being investigated, a guilt-by-association trick of the Soviet era. Since Navalny publicly described the ruling clique as the “party of crooks and thieves,” he has become a key figure in the opposition and a leader in exposing government corruption. He signaled interest in running for president in 2018, and his name recognition among Russians has soared from 6 percent to 37 percent, according to a recent Levada Center poll, leading the Kremlin to view him as a threat. If he is found guilty — Putin’s critics are rarely acquitted — he would be disqualified from public office.
That Navalny’s fate is sealed seems clear from the words of Vladimir Markin, a spokesman of the Russian Investigative Committee, which has launched inquiries against Navalny. Markin told the newspaper Izvestia: “The suspect is doing his best to draw attention to himself; one could even say he is teasing the authorities. So interest in his past grew, and the process of bringing him out in the open naturally sped up.”
Essentially, Markin acknowledged that the case is a show trial. Meanwhile, Markin’s boss, Alexander Bastrykin, who last year allegedly threatened to kill a journalist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has never been investigated.
Since 1992, 54 journalists have been killed in Russia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And since he returned to the presidency in May, Putin has overseen the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In the latest edition of its annual human rights report, the State Department listed numerous examples of infringement of universal human rights, including “laws that impose harsh fines for unsanctioned meetings”; the practice of identifying nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity” while receiving foreign funding; suspending the licenses of NGOs that have U.S. citizens as members or receive U.S. support and “pose a threat to Russian interests”; recriminalizing libel; the blocking of Web sites without a court order; and significantly expanding the definition of treason. “Skewed” elections in Putin’s favor and lack of due process in the courts were also noted.
More than a dozen Russians are in jail or under house arrest, awaiting trial for their alleged roles in the Bolotnaya Square protests last May; two — Konstantin Lebedev and Maksim Luzyanin — have been sentenced to penal colonies for 2½ years and 4½ years, respectively, for their alleged roles. Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has languished in prison for nearly a decade. An opposition activist seeking asylum in Ukraine, Leonid Razvozzhayev, was kidnapped in October by Russian agents and tortured into a confession; he remains in jail on trumped-up charges. Hundreds of NGOs have been raided across Russia in recent weeks; on occasion, a camera crew from Kremlin-friendly NTV was present to capture material used to condemn these groups as foreign agents. One group in Kostroma is being investigated because it hosted a round-table with a representative from the U.S. Embassy. Another, the respected election monitor Golos, has been fined for failing to register as a foreign agent.
Meanwhile, Kremlin officials, including Putin, regularly spew anti-American invective. And the State Duma’s ugly response last year to the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which banned visas for and froze assets of Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses, was to bar the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. families.
Aside from a State Department spokeswoman’s appropriate description of the NGO raids last month as a “witch hunt,” the Obama administration has voiced virtually no concerns about the crackdown — even when the victims are U.S. organizations or Russians who openly admire American freedoms. National security adviser Tom Donilon said nothing publicly about the human rights situation during his recent visit to Moscow. Instead, his trip seemed to signal U.S. eagerness to refocus relations on security and economic issues. Donilon delivered a letter from President Obama to the Russian president that Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said “is written in a constructive tone and has a number of proposals promoting bilateral dialogue and cooperation.”
This is no time for business as usual. Instead, Washington needs to emphasize the deterioration in Russia’s human rights situation by pushing back against the crackdown and focusing attention on the regime’s corrupt, authoritarian nature while using the Magnitsky Act whenever appropriate. Continued cooperation on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and counterterrorism is important — but not at the expense of ignoring the internal situation in Russia.
Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet at summits in June and September. By then, Navalny may well be sitting in prison. With repression in Russia deepening by the day, it will become increasingly untenable for Obama to justify looking the other way.