When Dmitry Medvedev was elected president of Russia two years ago, he publicly criticized the country’s human-rights record as “far from perfect” and called for reform. But just last week, Medvedev’s image as a civil-rights champion was dealt a stunning blow when his chief adviser on human rights, Ella Pamfilova, resigned. Her reason? A new wave of violent attacks and threats against Russia’s human-rights activists, as well as what Pamfilova calls the “never-ending wave of hate” from the Kremlin toward anyone critical of its policies. (A Kremlin spokesperson would only comment that Pamfilova was not pushed out, but resigned of her own accord.)
The past year has been a brutal one for activists in Russia: three have been killed and four evacuated from the country since last summer. Last month, state bureaucrats dubbed activists with the human-rights group Memorial—one of the most distinguished NGOs in Russia—“enemies of the people” and “worse than terrorists.” And at the annual July retreat of the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi, members openly paraded about an effigy—dressed in Nazi regalia—of Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the 83-year-old former dissident and leader of the human-rights monitor Helsinki Group. Though Pamfilova brought the incident to the Kremlin’s attention—and though Alekseyeva is a member of Medvedev’s human-rights council—Nashi went unpunished. It was the final straw for Pamfilova, who promptly quit in protest.
The Nashi incident is only the latest indication that the Kremlin may be turning away from a political thaw, and back toward both tacit and active repression of its critics. Police have been targeting public displays of dissent: in two separate late-July incidents in Moscow and St. Petersburg, officers arrested and beat scores of people protesting various government projects, such as the demolition of a public park. Activists are also deeply worried about a new law that will give Russia’s FSB—a successor to the KGB—the right to jail citizens who “obstruct” the agency’s work, even if they haven’t committed a crime.
Whether Medvedev approves of this new direction, or whether he lacks the power to stop it, remains unknown. But after her resignation, Pamfilova indicated that the latter may be the case: “The president ordered the prosecutor-general to investigate the violations [against protesters] many months ago,” she said. “Nobody seems to obey the president’s orders.” Pamfilova also noted that in early March, Medvedev ordered an inquiry into compensation for families of victims of the 2008 war in Georgia; the directive has never been carried out by the president’s administrators.
Regardless, there may be little that even Medvedev can do to change the system right now, say experts. “The problem is that the majority of our men in power cannot tolerate any criticism,” says Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov, who said activists are officially targeted because they are “prying too deeply in the most untouchable themes of…errors in the Kremlin’s policy.” Activists agree: “[We] have become too loud, too internationally recognized,” said Alekseyeva, the Helsinki Group’s leader. “Of course it is easier to shut us up than to follow the law.”