Anything Russia can do, you can do, too. That is the message Washington is sending to repressive, power-hungry governments around the world. With each step that President Vladimir Putin takes to restrict the freedoms of the Russian people, like-minded leaders watch U.S. (and European) reactions and, seeing weak responses, are emboldened to abuse human rights in a similar manner.
Putin’s crackdown on human rights is motivated by his desire to quell the protest movement that arose in December 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to demonstrate against unfair parliamentary elections. In March 2012, protesters were further incensed by the unfair elections that returned Putin to the presidency.
In response, the Russian government has developed new repressive tools and technologies — most notably, using the law as a weapon — that Putin eagerly uses as he attempts to reassert and consolidate his power and position. And U.S. objections to his abuses are plaintive, feeble and ignored.
To Russia’s south, Azerbaijan is taking note. President Ilham Aliyev is standing for reelection in October and hopes to avoid the unrest that has dogged Putin. With Russia’s actions seeming to effectively enfeeble the opposition, Aliyev has preemptively followed that oppressive model.
To discourage protests, Russia a year ago increased the fine for participating in unsanctioned rallies from a maximum of 1,000 rubles ($31.50) to a ceiling of 300,000 rubles ($9,450). Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that Azerbaijan’s “maximum jail sentence for violating rules for organizing, holding, and attending unauthorized assemblies increased from 15 days to two months.”
In July, in a move designed to stifle free speech, Russia once again made libel a criminal offense. Predictably, Azerbaijan is in the process of expanding the definitions of “insult” and “slander” and plans to include online statements in the scope of its libel laws. The effect on free speech would be chilling.
Similarly, Ukraine’s leaders have watched the West’s reaction to Russia’s human rights violations and have logically concluded that there will be no true price for their misdeeds. President Viktor Yanukovych seems as intent on consolidating power as Putin was 10 years ago, and he has begun taking Putin-esque steps in that direction.
Most notably, Ukraine’s continued — and politically motivated — detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko has provoked comparisons to Putin’s jailing of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Ukraine’s media freedom has also come under attack. The television channel Inter was acquired this year by the president’s chief of staff. Immediately afterward, the EUobserver Web site reported, “Inter axed its political talk show, Spravedlyvist — a prime time platform for Yanukovych critics — and replaced it with a show chaired by a known Yanukovych supporter.”
Other nations farther from Russia’s sphere of influence are arriving at similar conclusions. When Russia’s protest movement began in late 2011, Putin accused foreign nations of backing and fomenting the unrest. The U.S. Agency for International Development was among the first of his targets. The organization was unceremoniously booted from Russia last year, its operations shut down and its grants terminated. Only a few months later, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the agency for “meddling and conspiring against the government.”
As a Turkish protest movement has emerged in recent weeks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has parroted a similar line, hinting that the protests were instigated by “foreign powers.” Erdogan has begun to look toward altering Turkey’s constitution to ensure the continuation of his rule; Putin’s constitutional changes have allowed him to prolong his tenure at Russia’s helm and inspired similar actions by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The precedents that the United States and the West set regarding Russia’s human rights issues have repercussions far beyond Russian borders. U.S. and European statements of “disappointment” at Moscow’s latest restrictive law or political imprisonment are not enough. Words that are never translated into action have no effect.
We must make clear to Russia, and to all who are watching, that we will not treat as an equal or reward with secretarial visits a nation that systematically violates the rights of its citizens. Passage of the Magnitsky Act and sanctions against a select set of human rights violators were promising movements in the right direction, but more and stronger steps are necessary.
Hannah Thoburn is a Eurasia analyst based in Washington and is one of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2012-2013 future leaders.