Moscow is re-igniting its crackdown on domestic NGOs, and targeting the country’s oldest human rights organization. A suit filed by Russia’s Justice Ministry aims to liquidate the Russian Memorial Society, which was founded in 1989 to document abuses committed during the Soviet era. (In subsequent years, the organization began to focus on modern-day repressions as well.) Hounded by authorities for months with accusations that it is a “foreign agent,” Memorial faces dissolution once Russia’s Supreme Court rules on the lawsuit on November 13, reportedly on the grounds that it, and its affiliated associations, were improperly registered. (Note that the NGO has yet to receive a full copy of the suit.)
The lawsuit comes two years after President Vladimir Putin began a campaign to reign in dissent at home – targeting NGOs with international ties, human rights activists and political opponents. The result: shrinking civil society and the exodus of many opposition figures. At the same time frictions between Russia and the West have magnified. Well before Putin’s encroach into Ukraine, the Russian leader was prioritizing his domestic agenda – i.e, consolidate rule and create a nationalistic narrative that glorifies the Soviet era – at the expense of international relations.
The decision to shut a heavyweight like Memorial deals a particularly heavy blow to Russia’s civil society. Here Russian authorities are relying in part on state-controlled media to associate the NGO with terrorist networks. French daily Le Monde reports that on Friday, the Russian television station NTV ran a report accusing Memorial of assisting suspected terrorists and extremists. While Western media has been quick to denounce the lawsuit, the reaction at home may be more subdued. Even as external observers have loudly denounced the human rights abuses committed on his watch, Putin’s authoritarian measures have received strong domestic support.
So will Memorial incur the same fate as other vocal Kremlin critics? Perhaps. Putin is nothing if not persistent. (Remember deceased whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who ran afoul of the Kremlin and was convicted of tax fraud in a posthumous trial that bordered on farce). The longstanding human rights group plans to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court, and has done little to temper its critical stance on the Russian goverment, notably its interference in Ukraine – giving Moscow even more incentive to shutter the group. Memorial has a long fight ahead.