Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Protection of Basic Rights of Russians Now in Hands of Governors, Trifonova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 11 – Vladimir Putin’s decision to make the governors responsible for the fight against the pandemic has another consequence which has so far not attracted much attention, Yekaterina Trifonova of Nezavisimaya gazeta says. It means that they and not Putin are the officials on whom the protection of the constitutional rights of Russians now depends.

            Many of the steps the governors have taken to fight the pandemic, she says, citing the conclusions of the OVD-Info rights organization, violate constitutional norms, such as limiting freedom of assembly and thus protests and freedom of speech (

            On the one hand, by handing to the governors this responsibility, Putin has made them complicitous in his own crackdown on civil society; but on the other, this development means that the fight for the restoration of these rights shits from Moscow alone to each of the capitals of the federal subjects.

            But even before that happens, the regionalization of the control of society has introduced enormous diversity in the country with some regional officials taking a hard line and others a far more relaxed one and thus increasing the uncertainties Russians face in dealing with the powers that be as they move about the country, undermining Putin’s vaunted “common legal space.”

            And it has given rise to other problems as well. Federal law prevents people taking part in protests from covering their faces but regional officials have ordered everyone to wear protective masks. That conflict can have unfortunate consequences: an individual protester in Ryazan was arrested for wearing a mask while demonstrating there.

            And while federal laws imposing restrictions for one or another reason typically have sunset provisions, the orders of regional officials almost never do, thus raising questions about when or even if the regional restrictions will be lifted by regional heads or by the central government.

            Trifonova spokes with Aleksandr Brod, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, about all this. He said that in his view, under extraordinary circumstances as in the case with the pandemic, “limitations on a number of human rights are inevitable in order to protect the no less important right to health.”

            But the situation in Russia and its regions is complicated by the fact that “all these measures have been undertaken by the powers unilaterally without giving a chance” to ombudsmen, the Human Rights Council or the population to express an opinion or seek modifications.

            And there has been a lack of appreciation of the fact, Brod continues, that the broader consequences of the pandemic, including economic difficulties, will inevitably give rise to protest attitudes that must find some way to express themselves.  Online protests are possible, but even these have problems.

            That is because the expression of an opinion online could easily become subject to punishment under Russian laws against “fake news.”  Fining or imprisoning people for that, he suggests, is a potentially dangerous excess. 

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