The Iron Curtain Falls Again

Russia's retreat into fear and repression


Speaking to an audience at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies late last month, Russian journalist and activist Irina Yasina recalled that her first visit to Harvard took place 15 years ago, at a time of tremendous change in her home country. "Russia had just become a part of the world," she said—meaning, of course, the free democratic world. "Now, the change is happening in the other direction."

Yasina, who spoke at one of the Sakharov seminars as part of the Davis Center's Sakharov Program on Human Rights, has been in a position to experience that change on her own skin. She is the program director of the Open Russia Foundation, an organization that has supported numerous initiatives to promote civil institutions, human rights, and democratic reform in Russia (from educating journalists and politicians about liberal principles to educating ordinary citizens about their legal rights). The foundation was launched and financed by the now-imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose prosecution on tax fraud charges was generally regarded as a blatant move by Vladimir Putin to squelch political opposition.

In March, the foundation's bank accounts were frozen by the Russian government because of its connection to the jailed Khodorkovsky, essentially putting an end to its operations. While the foundation is appealing the order, the courts so far have sided with the government, and few expect a favorable result. The foundation's staff and supporters, said Yasina, had made a bitter joke of the fact that "Open Russia is closed." In the bad old days, dark humor had been one of the few ways Russians defied tyranny in private. Those days may be coming back.

The Open Russia Foundation is not the only target. All independent civic and political organizations, Yasina said, are threatened by Russia's new law regulating nongovernmental organizations, which took effect April 17. The law, widely seen as an effort to forestall a Russian version of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" that forced an authoritarian government to resign, was amended before its final passage as a result of criticism from the West. But the new version, Yasina said, is bad enough.

Among other things, the legislation prohibits anonymous donations to independent organizations; at any time, an organization can be required to prove that its fund-raising doesn't come from "dirty money." It can also be required to provide data on every single person taking part in its activities; organizations that don't comply could be shut down after a second violation.

How harshly will the law be enforced? Yasina believes that nonpolitical private organizations, such as charities assisting the disabled or foundations supporting the arts, are likely to get a break. However, groups dealing with human rights or civic and political activism, she predicted, "will have a very hard time." The situation is especially dire because political opposition and the media in Russia have already been largely stifled.

A similarly bleak assessment was given a few days earlier at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., by Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who resigned last December, saying that Russia was no longer a democratic country. The topic of his talk was the summit of the Group of Eight—the leading industrialized democracies—in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July. The meeting, Illarionov predicted, would herald "the death of the G-8," since Russia today does not meet any of the criteria of an industrialized democracy. Its recent record in political freedoms, judicial independence, and corruption is abysmal.

Interestingly, Illarionov (who once played a vital role in getting Russia accepted into the G-8) and Yasina both voiced the sentiment that neither boycotting the St. Petersburg summit nor participating in it was an optimal solution. A boycott would put Russia firmly on the path of isolation and make it harder for the West to exert any positive influence. Participation would amount to condoning Russia's current policies. Perhaps the best answer would be for Western leaders to attend and then use the summit as an opportunity to condemn Russia's slide back toward tyranny. But such a breach of diplomatic protocol is unlikely.

During the question period, Illarionov avoided answering a question about whether he was himself afraid of retaliation for his outspokenness. Yasina was more blunt: Three years ago, she said, she would have laughed off such a question—but today, the danger of being jailed is nothing to laugh at.

In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, former Soviet dissident and now Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky draws a distinction between "free societies" and "fear societies." It's pretty clear which side of the divide Russia falls on now.