Fri, 06 Dec 2019

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An opinion poll shows that the proportion of Russians who consider rights like the freedom of speech and assembly to be of crucial importance has increased sharply during President Vladimir Putin's current term. Also, Moscow's unusual rights-court claim about domestic-violence victims is likened to trolling, and the Kremlin avoids substantive comment on a horrific killing in Syria.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Freedoms And Fears

The results are in, and they're pretty clear: Russians want more freedom. Or, to put it another way, more Russians want freedoms, including freedom of speech, the right to free assembly, and the ability to take part in politics.

In a survey conducted in October, independent pollster Levada Center asked Russians what rights and freedoms they considered the most important, naming 17 ranging from the right to medical care and leisure time to the right to receive information and the freedom of religion.

Some of the responses were little changed from December 2017, three months before Putin's election to a fourth term, when Levada conducted the same survey: The number of people naming the right to medical care was unchanged, for example, and the number listing the right to a good job at a fair wage increased from 57 percent to 58 percent.

Those are the kind of rights -- called 'social' as opposed to political -- that the new head of Putin's Civil Society and Human Rights Council suggested he would focus on following his appointment in a purge that pushed critical voices out of the advisory body.

People attend a rally to demand the release of jailed protesters in Moscow on September 29.

Concern about political freedoms -- particularly those that Kremlin critics accuse the government of suppressing persistently since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 -- increased dramatically in less than two years.

The proportion of respondents naming freedom of speech jumped to 58 percent, from 34, while for freedom of assembly and association it more than doubled, to 28 percent from 13. Thirty-nine percent cited the right to receive information, up from 25, and the right to participate in 'social and political life' was named by 30 percent -- nearly twice as many as the 16 percent recorded in 2017.

A separate Levada poll, conducted earlier this autumn, seemed to reflect similar tendencies in public opinion. Asked whether they fear a 'return to mass repressions,' and how much they fear it, 28 percent said they 'experience constant fear' of this development -- more than triple the 9 percent recorded in 2017.

Autumn Fallout

The proportion of Russians who live in constant fear of the 'tightening of the political regime' shot up to 23 percent, from 7 percent 2017.

The polls on freedoms and fears followed a summer of protests in Moscow -- and a clampdown by police, prosecutors, and courts whose dragnet snared bystanders as well as peaceful demonstrators -- over a local election that government opponents said underscored the lack of several basic rights that are guaranteed to Russian citizens by the constitution or other laws.

First, numerous independent candidates were barred from the ballot in the September 8 Moscow City Duma election on what they contended were fabricated grounds such as problems with petition signatures or other paperwork.

Then, activist say, the authorities crimped the right to free assembly by denying permission for some of the protests held to demand free, fair elections and using unjustified force against nonviolent demonstrators as well as passersby.

Riot police detain a participant of an unsanctioned rally urging fair elections in Moscow on August 3.

The polls also came after a spate of protests across Russia in Putin's current term over local quality-of-life issues, such as demonstrations against construction projects and garbage dumps, as well as economic matters including an unpopular hike in the retirement age.

Domestic Violence

News about Russia earlier this month was dominated by a gruesome death: The killing of Anastasia Yeshchenko, 24, a St. Petersburg graduate student whose severed head was found, according to media reports citing police, at the home of her partner and former professor, Oleg Sokolov, 63, a historian and Napoleon buff.

Sokolov, who authorities say was fished out of a river in the center of the city during an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of a knapsack containing the victim's arms or hands, has confessed to her murder.

Yeshchenko's killing was one of the latest in a string of cases that have shone a spotlight on domestic violence in Russia, a persistent problem that is the subject of a mounting standoff over efforts to pass legislation aimed at protecting potential victims and adequately punishing offenders.

Demonstrators rally in support of 'For justice for women forced to defend themselves, and for a law on domestic violence,' in St. Petersburg in July 2018.

The Russian government raised eyebrows, and the ire of human rights defenders, with a letter the Justice Ministry sent to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in a case brought by four victims including Margarita Grachyova, whose husband -- now former -- cut off her hands with an axe a few weeks after she had been ignored by police when she reported that he had threatened to kill her.

According to the daily Kommersant, the ministry argued that 'the scale of the problem' of domestic violence and the focus on women as its main victims were 'rather exaggerated.'

'Even if one assumes that the majority of people subjected to domestic violence in Russia are, in fact, women (though evidence of this assertion does not exist), it is logical to assume that male victims suffer more from discrimination in such cases,' the letter said, arguing that men 'are not expected to seek protection against violence from family members.'

In an article whose headline asked whether Russian authorities were 'trolling on domestic violence,' Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the suggestion that men are more likely to suffer from discrimination in such cases 'an outrageous claim that flies in the face of the facts.'

The lack of a separate law on domestic violence is one of the ways that the Russian government 'systematically fails to protect' its victims, HRW said.

A week after Yeshchenko's killing, another horrible death is making Russia-related headlines - the torture and slaying of a man in Syria in 2017 by assailants who the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta reported may be members of Vagner, a private military company that is reportedly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg tycoon whose wealth comes in part from catering contracts with the state.

Not A Question For The Kremlin

Piecing together four graphic video clips, the report said that the victim's assailants hit him with a sledgehammer and eventually cut off his head and hands and strung his body up by the feet before setting it on fire, at times making remarks in what sounds like fluent Russian.

Using software to find people who look alike, Novaya gazeta determined that a man shown in the video footage without his face covered appears to be a Russian man it identified as Stanislav D., who it said evidence showed has worked for Vagner, which is widely reported to have sent fighters to Syria as an unofficial part of the military operation in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

In the video, several men can be heard speaking Russian and joking and taking photographs as they torture and then mutilate a man's body.

The video clips and the Novaya gazeta report seem to be some of the strongest evidence of an individual atrocity possibly committed by Russians in Syria, where Moscow has given Assad crucial backing throughout the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and prompted more than 5 million to flee the country since it began with a government crackdown on protests in 2011.

If the death of the victim in the video clips is chillingly remarkable, the Kremlin's main comment on the matter so far was more run-of-the-mill: a series of remarks that, like many made by Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov when journalists ask about issues that may shed an unflattering light on Russia's actions, resulted in state-media headlines that suggested a denial.

One TASS headline put it this way: 'Peskov: the cruel killing in Syria that was recorded on video is not connected to the operation by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.'

Maybe not, but nobody said it did: Vagner is not part of the Russian armed forces, at least officially. Which is part of the point, presumably, for Putin: Private military companies, as they are called in Russia, give the Kremlin deniability when it comes to prodding from pretty much anyone who wants to know, from Western governments to the families of fighters killed in conflict in which the Kremlin wants to hide the extent of Russia's involvement or, as in the case of Ukraine, deny it is involved.

The TASS report quoted Peskov as saying that Russia should have no concerns about any damage to its reputation because 'this has absolutely nothing to do with Russian military personnel.'

Again, this wording does not address the question of whether Vagner personnel could have been involved in the killing.

Peskov made that crystal-clear in a subsequent comment, saying: 'I can speak only about the activity of the Russian armed forces and its units, which act in accordance with the orders of the commander-in-chief' -- a reference to Putin.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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