On Wednesday, Russian government officials raided the offices of both the Human Rights Watch and Transparency International. These two NGO’s hold wide esteem across the world for being fair and honest. Regardless, Russian authorities searched their offices for any information that could point to tax violations, and possible unwanted political activities.
Further, while Human Rights Watch and Transparency International may be the two most visible NGOs to come under the government’s wrath, reports suggest that hundreds of small NGOs have also come under fire in recent months. These efforts are going hand-in-hand with efforts to suppress Russia civil society and political opposition.
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Leaders from both the Human Rights Watch and Transparency International have both denounced the raids, claiming that the amount to oppression and an increased insult on civil society. Numerous other international NGO leaders have also denounced the Russian government, suggesting civic society members will not be going quietly in the on-going fight. If provoked enough, there is even a chance that the Russian government will expel international NGOs it views as interfering with domestic affairs.
In February 2013, the Russian government placed dissident leader Sergei Udaltsov under house arrest. This follows similar moves against other dissident leaders in 2012. Many of those arrested have claimed that the government if falsely charging and unfairly targeting them.
With Putin’s popularity continuing to decline and his stranglehold over Russian society appearing to wither away, the Russian government has increasingly been resorting to strong-armed tactics. Putin’s approval ratings are at an all-time low and Russia’s once unchallengeable strongman appears to be at his weakest point in history.
Traditionally, both foreign and local NGOs have been among the strongest critics of Putin’s government. In general, these NGOs have been pressing the government for increased democracy, more transparency, and better efforts to fight corruption and intimidation. Russia has already expelled USAID for political meddling and has threatened leaders of foreign NGOs with fines and even jail time, should they not comply to the nation’s increasingly stringent laws. Any foreign NGOs involved with “political activity” (broadly defined) must now register as a foreign agent.
Putin still enjoys a strong majority approval rating, with numbers hovering just about 60%. While these numbers are still strong, they are a far cry from the 90% approval ratings he enjoyed in the autumn of 2008. Even after the Great Recession slammed Russia’s economy, Putin still enjoyed approval ratings of nearly 80% as of 2009. Putin has been instrumental in improving Russia’s international standings and economy, but now many people are coming to question the costs of such improvements.
With NGOs and critics becoming more vocal, and Russia’s economy struggling to provide opportunity for society as a whole, tensions may continue to rise. The spread of the Internet and mobile communications means that even the most forceful strong-armed tactics will likely fall in the nation. Indeed, it would seem that unless Putin reverses course and starts to address the rampant societal ills, his strong armed tactics could back fire.