The war at home. Russia is de facto under martial law, human rights experts warn

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Rights and freedoms in Russia have been restricted to the point that the country is de facto under martial law. This is the conclusion of a new report authored by prominent human rights experts Pavel Chikov, head of the rights group Agora, and Damir Gainutdinov, head of the Net Freedoms Project. Indeed, against the backdrop of Moscow’s month-long invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities have moved to impose serious restrictions on basic constitutional rights and freedoms at home. As Chikov and Gainutdinov write, these restrictions have primarily affected freedoms of assembly, speech, and movement, as well as private property rights. Meduza summarizes the report’s main findings here.

Freedom of Assembly

The Russian authorities haven’t authorized a single anti-war demonstration — or a single public gathering in support of the so-called “special military operation” — since the Kremlin began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Applications to hold public gatherings have been rejected under the pretext of “pandemic restrictions.” At unauthorized anti-war rallies, protesters have been detained en masse. Russian law enforcement have already carried out more than 15,000 arrests at anti-war protests across the country, and there have been dozens of reports of police officers beating demonstrators. 

Read more about anti-war protests in Russia

In the midst of the protests, the Russian State Duma quickly adopted amendments that essentially amount to “laws on military censorship.” This includes introducing administrative and criminal liability for spreading “false news” about or “discrediting” the actions of the Russian military. The legislation in question was adopted on March 4, and Russian authorities began actively enforcing it by March 6. At this writing, around 60 administrative protocols have been drawn up countrywide. 

Also to date, the authorities have launched at least ten criminal cases under this law, four of which are against journalists. In addition, dozens of investigative actions are known to be underway against journalists and activists, as part of criminal cases that have no formal connection to the anti-war protests. 

Freedom of Speech

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was immediately followed by new restrictions on freedom of speech. On February 26, Roskomnadzor (the federal communications and censorship watchdog) began issuing notices to media outlets, demanding that their editors retract reports about the war. A few days later, the censorship agency began blocking online publications en masse. In total, at least 811 websites have been blocked. On top of targeting the press, the Russian authorities began cracking down on social networks. In addition to blocking Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Russia declared Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) an “extremist organization.” Whether Google and its services will be able to continue operating in Russia remains an open question. 

Simultaneously, some American and EU tech companies have — of their own accord — stopped servicing customers in Russia and imposed restrictions on accessing services from Russian IP addresses. Taken together, all of this has significantly limited Russian ties to the global Internet. 


Freedom of Movement 

In the aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, opportunities for exercising freedom of movement have been sharply curtailed for inhabitants of Russia. This is primarily due to Western countries closing their skies to Russian planes and vice versa. Movement within Russia has also been complicated by the closure of 11 airports in the central and southern parts of the country (a measure that was just extended until April 1). 

Movement across Russia’s land borders also remains largely restricted. At the moment, you can only freely cross the land border with Belarus (which is also cut off from European airspace). Restrictions on land borders with Kazakhstan and Mongolia are set to be lifted on March 30. However, according to the authors of the report, this will only really allow for travel into other parts of Central Asia. Land borders with the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Finland, Georgia, and Azerbaijan remain closed under the pretext of pandemic restrictions. 

Private Property Rights

As part of the measures taken to counter international sanctions and protect the Russian economy, the authorities have decided to move toward restricting private property rights. On March 23, a bill was submitted to the State Duma that would allow Russian nationals to not fulfil their contract obligations if doing so proves “ultimately impossible” following the introduction of “restrictive measures” against Russia in “the context of unfriendly actions of foreign states.”

In addition, Russia’s Federal Service for Intellectual Property (Rospatent) has begun to develop regulations to restrict the rights of copyright holders — namely, foreign companies. On March 3, a court in the Kirov region issued a landmark ruling, denying a British company compensation for infringement of exclusive rights, on the grounds that the copyright holder was “based in an unfriendly country.” 

2021 crackdown comes into focus

The authors of the report also note that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clarified the “logic and premise” of the authorities’ total crackdown on the domestic political opposition and the independent press in 2021. Indeed, this full-scale war gives new context to Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment and the decision to outlaw Team Navalny as “extremist,” as well as to the suppression of pro-democracy activists and more active members of the Communist Party, and to the blacklisting of dozens of independent media outlets as “foreign agents.” All of these groups “shaped public opinion” in Russia and, presumably, would have created “powerful opposition to state propaganda” during the war. 


The report’s authors believe that the domestic political preparations for the invasion actually began in November 2020, when — shortly after a series of National Security Council meetings — Russia’s “law on media” was amended to allow for designating individuals as “foreign agents.”

Measures to control the Russian Internet and preparations for isolating it from the global network began even earlier, in the spring of 2020 — when Kremlin bureaucrat Andrey Lipov took over as head of Roskomnadzor (according to the report’s authors, his predecessor, Alexander Zharov, “failed to cope with the task of subordinating the RuNet”). Under Lipov, Russia’s censorship agency began preparations for blocking media outlets and social networks en masse. As the report notes, the tone of Roskomnadzor’s interactions with global tech companies also changed dramatically, with the agency no longer seeing them as partners. 

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Translation by Eilish Hart

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