More than 30,000 people marched in Moscow on February 27, the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s murder, and there were rallies remembering him in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and dozens of other cities. This outpouring is quite remarkable given the harsh laws the Putin government has passed against public assemblies. Though many people in the West assume that Putin has intimidated and crushed opposition and independent groups in Russia, there are actually tens of thousands of brave Russians who are actively and openly carrying forward Nemtsov’s struggle for democracy.
Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, assaults on freedom of association and expression have been among the serious human rights abuses in Russia. His regime was badly rattled by the protest movement that was triggered by his return to power, and he has responded by clamping down on any organization or movement operating independently from the government.
Attacks on NGOs have in many ways resembled attacks on political activists such as Boris Nemtsov. The “foreign agents” law was designed to portray independent organizations with international ties as sinister, anti-Russian tools of the West – the same insinuations frequently leveled at opposition activists. As with political oppositionists, many prominent NGO leaders have been targets of a sustained and vicious smear campaign perpetrated by state-media propaganda. In both cases, the result has been to create a climate of hate leading to constant harassment, threats, and attacks. As a result, many NGO leaders and political activists have been forced to leave the country.
The latest move against Russian NGOs is the law on so-called “undesirable foreign organizations,” which shows that the regime intends to continue ratcheting up pressure on independent civil society until nothing is left. It seems likely that a similar process is planned for the political opposition.
In both cases, we can expect Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and Putin’s close ally, to represent the most extreme, lawless, and violent component of the campaign of repression. Kadyrov has been involved in the murder of many prominent Russian democrats, including the great journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the human rights defender Natalia Estemirova. Nemtsov’s murder, for which there is considerable evidence also pointing to Kadyrov’s complicity, represented a wholly new level of intimidation against the opposition: the assassination, directly in front of the Kremlin, of a former high-ranking government minister who was at the time one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures. The alleged murderer, Zaur Dadayev, was an officer in a battalion controlled by Kadyrov, who praised Dadayev as “a true patriot of Russia.”
In the absence of any consequences for this heinous act, Kadyrov has continued to make not only general threats against the opposition, but also explicit death threats against specific figures. Last month he posted a video on his Instagram page, with Russian opposition leaders Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza [Ed. who also blogs here at World Affairs] shown through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. The video was accompanied by Kadyrov’s threat: “Whoever doesn’t get it will get it!”
Despite this dark picture, there is reason for hope. On the occasion of the anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder, his colleague Ilya Yashin showed incredible bravery by publishing a report documenting Kadyrov’s crimes entitled “A Threat to National Security.” The purpose of the report, Yashin has said, is “to open Russian society’s eyes to the fact that Ramzan Kadyrov, with the connivance of the country’s authorities and secret services, has become a figure that poses a threat to Russia’s national security.”
Kadyrov, who is the creation of the Putin regime, controls a criminal state within a state. Since “its loyalty,” as the report notes, “depends entirely on the Russian federal government satisfying Ramzan Kadyrov’s financial and political appetites,” Kadyrov is uncontrollable and is not just a threat to Russia but “is our common problem at a global level.” Therefore, according to the report, “The very least the West can do to protect itself is to put Ramzan Kadyrov and his accomplices on the Magnitsky List for gross violations of human rights, add Kremlin propagandists there for creating the atmosphere of hatred, and start an independent international investigation of Boris Nemtsov’s murder.”
Just yesterday in the European Parliament, Yashin, Kasyanov, Kara-Murza, and Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna Nemtsova called once again upon the international community to help bring the masterminds of Nemtsov’s murder to justice.
There is also reason for hope in the continuing struggle of Russian NGOs, which have fought the new repressive laws every step of the way with unyielding determination. I was recently visited by the leader of a major Russian pro-democracy organization, who told me that Russian NGOs and activists can survive Putin’s repression. What they cannot survive, he said, is the termination of support by Western governments and private foundations. Ludmilla Alexeeva, the founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Russia’s most prominent human rights defender, wrote last week in The Washington Post that Russian activists “are fighting for the values that attracted Western aid in the first place….Surely the project of defending freedom in Russia is worth pursuing while there are Russians willing to stand up for it.”
I am humbled and amazed by the courage of these Russian democrats. Last May 26, just weeks after he spoke in the U.S. Congress at a symposium memorializing his friend Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza suffered a severe poisoning that resulted in multiple organ failure and a coma, and that nearly led to his death. Miraculously he survived – doctors had given him only a 5% chance to live - and he has now returned to Russia to continue his work for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
We must never abandon someone like Vladimir Kara-Murza, and there are many others like him in Russia today who are prepared to defend their dignity and rights in the face of the most murderous and barbaric threats. If we forget them, our country will lose contact with its roots and values, and the result will be devastating for our national interests and moral identity. So let us do whatever we can to show them that they’re not alone, and that they have our full support and solidarity.
Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based upon remarks made at a meeting of The Senate Human Rights Caucus on March 2, 2016, on “Human Rights Abuses in Putin’s Russia.