Putin’s crackdown casts a wide net, ensnaring LGBTQ people, lawyers and many others

TALLINN, Estonia — It is not just opposition politicians who have been targeted by the crackdown by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government in recent years. Independent voices are also being victimized, as are those who do not conform to what the state sees as the country’s ‘traditional values’.

Russia’s once flourishing free press has been largely reduced to either state-controlled media or independent journalists operating from abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with few critical outlets operating in the country. Prominent rights groups are banned or classified as agents of foreigners. Lawyers representing dissidents have been prosecuted. LGBTQ activists are labeled “extremists.”

A look at those who have come under fire during Putin’s 24-year rule, which is likely to be extended for another six years in this month’s presidential election:

Independent media

Independent news sites have been largely blocked in Russia since the first weeks of the war in Ukraine. Many have moved their newsrooms abroad and continue to operate, accessible in Russia via virtual private networks or VPNs. Reporting within Russia or making money from Russian advertisers was difficult.

Russian authorities have also labeled dozens of media outlets and individual journalists as “foreign agents” since 2021 – a designation that implies additional government surveillance and has strong pejorative connotations aimed at discrediting the recipient. Some are also banned as “undesirable organizations” under a 2015 law that criminalizes involvement with such organizations.

Journalists have been arrested and imprisoned on various charges.

“The Russian authorities have decided to completely destroy institutions of civil society and independent journalism after February 24, 2022,” said Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s most popular independent news site Meduza, referring to the date of the invasion. Meduza was declared ‘undesirable’ in January 2023.

More restrictions appear to be coming. Parliament has passed a law banning advertisers from doing business with “foreign agents,” which is likely to impact not only news sites but also blogs on YouTube that require advertising and are a popular source of news and analysis.

Journalist Katerina Gordeyeva initially said she was suspending her YouTube channel with 1.6 million subscribers because of the new law, but changed her mind after an outpouring of support. “Giving up now would be too simple and too easy a decision,” she said. “We will try to hold on.”

Rights groups

Dozens of rights groups, charities and other non-governmental organizations have been labeled “foreign agents” and banned as “undesirable” in recent years. Many had to close.

In December 2021, a Moscow court ordered the closure of Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations. It gained international fame for its investigation of repression in the Soviet Union; A few months after the ruling, the country won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. Its 70-year-old co-chairman, Oleg Orlov, suffered another paralyzing attack and was sentenced last month to 2.5 years in prison for criticizing the war.

Another prominent rights group leader behind bars is Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of Golos, who has monitored Russian elections since 2000. He is in pre-trial detention on charges widely seen as an attempt to pressure the group ahead of this month’s elections.

His arrest last year was not a surprise, the group’s other leader, Stanislav Andreychuk, said in an interview with The Associated Press, because Golos had been under pressure since it exposed widespread violations during the 2011 parliamentary elections that sparked mass protests led.

However, the pressure against Golos came in waves and at times the group was able to work constructively with the election authorities. It has even won two presidential grants.

“We are like a city on a high riverbank,” Andriychuk said. ‘The river is eating away at the bank, and the bank is slowly retreating. … At one point we were on the cliff.”

Lawyers

Lawyers representing Kremlin critics and working on politically motivated cases have also faced increasing pressure. Some prominent individuals have left Russia for fear of persecution.

Human rights and legal aid group Agora was labeled ‘undesirable’ in 2023, making its activities and all dealings with it illegal.

Three lawyers who represented Alexei Navalny have been jailed on charges of involvement in an extremist organization. Associates of the late opposition leader said it was a way to isolate him while he was in prison.

Prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov told AP that the pressure has deterred some lawyers from political cases. Pavlov left Russia in 2021 while defending former journalist Ivan Safronov on charges of treason. After Pavlov spoke out about the case, authorities opened a criminal investigation against him and banned him from using the telephone and the Internet. “They simply paralyzed my work,” he said.

Dmitry Talantov, another of Safronov’s lawyers, was arrested in 2022 for criticizing the war and is on trial. He faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The crackdown on LGBTQ rights has been going on for more than a decade and has often been accompanied by Putin’s criticism of Western countries trying to impose their values ​​on Russia. In 2022, authorities passed a law banning propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations” among adults, effectively banning any public endorsement of LGBTQ rights.

Another 2023 law banned gender transition procedures and gender-affirming care, as well as changing a person’s gender in official documents and public records.

In November, the Supreme Court banned what the government called the LGBTQ movement in Russia, labeling it an extremist organization. This effectively banned all LGBTQ activism. Soon after, authorities began imposing fines for displaying rainbow-colored items.

Igor Kochetkov, human rights activist and founder of the Russian LGBT Network, told AP that the Supreme Court’s ruling was more about ideology than anything else.

“So far we have not seen any attempts to ban” and criminalize gay relationships, as the Soviet Union did, Kochetkov said. Rather, it is an attempt to suppress “any independent opinion that does not fit with the official state ideology … and any organized citizen activity over which the government has no control,” he added.

Religious believers

In perhaps the same vein, the government, which is closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, has cracked down on smaller religious denominations and groups and banned some. Authorities took Jehovah’s Witnesses even further, persecuting hundreds of believers across the country, often just for gathering to pray.

The Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization in 2017, leaving those involved open to possible criminal prosecution.

Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman Jarrod Lopes said more than 400 believers have since been jailed, and 131 men and women are in prison. Nearly 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been charged, and more than 500 have been added to Russia’s register of extremists and terrorists.

“It’s absurd to us because… part of our belief system is to obey the authorities. We want to be good citizens. We want to help our community,” he told AP. “We are not anti-government either, we are neutral. We are not going to organize a protest.”

In 2018, Putin himself said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are also Christians, I don’t quite understand why we need to put pressure on them,” and promised to look into it. But the number of arrests and raids against them only grew.

Putin has distanced himself from the law enforcement and security structures carrying out the crackdown, said Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

“They have a certain domain, and they have a mandate in this domain, and they act in accordance with that,” says Stanovaya. “Putin knows it and agrees with it. … It’s convenient for him.”

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