POLITICS

Putin’s crackdown casts a wide net, ensnaring the LGBTQ+ community, lawyers and many others

Mar 6, 2024, 9:13 PM

FILE - Riot police detain two young men at a demonstration in Moscow, Russia, on Sept. 21, 2022. Th...

FILE - Riot police detain two young men at a demonstration in Moscow, Russia, on Sept. 21, 2022. The crackdown by Russian President Vladimir Putin affects not only opposition politicians but also independent voices and those who don't conform to what the Kremlin sees as the country's "traditional values." (AP Photo, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo, File)

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — It’s not just opposition politicians who are targeted in the crackdown by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government in recent years. Also falling victim are independent voices as well as those who don’t conform to what the state sees as the country’s “traditional values.”

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

A look at those who have come under attack during Putin’s 24-year rule that is likely to be extended by six more years in this month’s presidential election:

INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Independent news sites largely have been 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 inside Russia or earning money off Russian advertisers has been difficult.

Russian authorities since 2021 also have labeled dozens of outlets and individual journalists as ”foreign agents” – a designation implying additional government scrutiny and carrying strong pejorative connotations aimed at discrediting the recipient. Some have also been outlawed as “undesirable organizations” under a 2015 law that makes involvement with such organizations a criminal offense.

Journalists have been arrested and imprisoned on a variety of charges.

“The Russian authorities decided to destroy civil society institutions and independent journalism completely after Feb. 24, 2022,” said Ivan Kolpakov, chief editor 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 passed a law banning advertisers from doing business with “foreign agents,” likely affecting not just news sites but also blogs on YouTube that need 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 due to 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 hang in there.”

RIGHTS GROUPS

Dozens of rights groups, charities and other nongovernmental organizations have been labeled “foreign agents” and outlawed as “undesirable” in recent years. Many had to shut down.

In December 2021, a court in Moscow ordered the closure of Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations. It drew international acclaim for its studies of repression in the Soviet Union; several months after the ruling, it won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. In yet another crippling blow, its 70-year-old co-chair, Oleg Orlov, was sentenced last month to 2½ years in prison over criticism of the war.

Another prominent rights group leader behind bars is Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of Golos, which 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 vote.

His arrest last year wasn’t a surprise, said the group’s other leader, Stanislav Andreychuk, in an interview with The Associated Press, because Golos has been under pressure since it detailed widespread violations in the 2011 parliamentary election that led to mass protests.

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

“We are like a town on a high river bank,” Andriychuk said. “The river eats away at the bank, and the bank recedes slowly. … At some point, we found ourselves on the cliffside.”

LAWYERS

Lawyers who represent Kremlin critics and work on politically motivated cases also have faced growing pressure. Some prominent ones have left Russia, fearing prosecution.

Human rights and legal aid group Agora was labeled “undesirable” in 2023, making its operations and any dealings with it illegal.

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

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

Dmitry Talantov, another lawyer for Safronov, was arrested in 2022 for criticizing the war and is on trial. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY

The crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights has gone on for more than a decade and often was accompanied by Putin’s criticism of Western nations trying to impose their values on Russia. In 2022, authorities adopted a law banning propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” among adults, effectively outlawing any public endorsement of LGBTQ+ rights.

Another law enacted in 2023 prohibited gender transitioning 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 as an extremist organization. That effectively outlawed any LGBTQ+ activism. Shortly afterward, authorities started imposing fines for displaying rainbow-colored items.

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

“So far we haven’t seen attempts to ban gay relations” and criminalize them, as the Soviet Union did, Kochetkov said. Rather, it’s an attempt to suppress “any independent opinion that doesn’t fit with the official state ideology … and any organized civic activity that the government can’t control,” he added.

RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS

In perhaps a similar vein, the government, closely allied with the Russian Orthodox Church, has cracked down on smaller religious denominations and groups, banning some. Authorities went further with Jehovah’s Witnesses, prosecuting hundreds of believers across the country, often simply for gathering to pray.

The Supreme Court in 2017 declared Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an extremist organization, exposing those involved with it to potential criminal charges.

Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman Jarrod Lopes said over 400 believers have been jailed since then, and 131 men and women are in prison. Nearly 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced charges, and over 500 were 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’re also not anti-government, we are neutral. We’re not going to stage a protest.”

In 2018, Putin himself said “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too, I don’t quite understand why clamp down on them,” and he promised to look into it. But the number of arrests and raids targeting them only grew.

Putin has distanced himself from the law enforcement and security structures that carry out the crackdowns, says Tatyana Stanovaya, 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 it,” Stanovaya says. “Putin knows it and agrees with it. … It’s convenient for him.”

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Putin’s crackdown casts a wide net, ensnaring the LGBTQ+ community, lawyers and many others