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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 1790
The Kremlin's crackdown on the opposition continues;
Saudi Arabia turns the tables
Edited by Ilan Berman
July 23, 2012
The Russian cargo ship, the Alaed, which was forced to turn back after it was discovered carrying repaired attack helicopters to Damascus, was sighted heading south off the coast of Norway. According to the New York Times, the ship appeared to be on course to meet up with several Russian naval ships bound for the Mediterranean for “training exercises.” Despite turning the ship around last month after its British insurer withdrew coverage, Moscow maintains that the helicopters required servicing under a “longstanding contract,” and therefore do not violate United Nations sanctions.
Despite criticism from the United States, the Kremlin speedily passed a controversial new bill governing NGOs receiving foreign aid through the lower house of parliament. It is expected to be quickly signed into law, once the upper house provides its rubber stamp to the legislation. When the U.S. State Department expressed “deep concern” about the bill, Reuters reported that the Russian Foreign Ministry retaliated with an accusation that “such comments cannot be seen as anything other than entirely inappropriate attempts at gross interference in the activities of the Russian state authorities.” Other critics of the bill emphasized a concern that the legislation is an attempt to intimidate into silence groups which President Putin has called “jackals,” and accused of supporting opposition parties.
In a bizarre reversal of roles, Moscow was accused of attempting “unjustified interference” in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs. The accusation came after Russia’s Human Rights envoy expressed “great concern” over a clash between demonstrators and law enforcement in which two people were killed. According to Reuters, the Saudi interior ministry claimed that there were no clashes, but that the two civilians were killed by “unknown assailants,” and called the statement by Russia’s envoy “hostile.” “The Kingdom learned with strong astonishment and surprise about the comment by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative on human rights,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “which represents a blatant and unjustified intervention...in the internal affairs of the kingdom.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of attempting to “blackmail” the Kremlin to support a new UN Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against Syria, reports Radio Free Europe. Lavrov told reporters ahead of talks with Kofi Annan that Western countries “threatened to discontinue a 300-strong UN monitoring mission in Syria,” if Moscow didn’t agree to new sanctions. “We consider it an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach,” he said, “since it is unacceptable to use observers as a bargaining chip,” reiterating Russia’s position that it is “unrealistic” for the West to “expect Russia to ask its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to step down.”
Four members of Russia’s upper house of parliament traveled to Washington in an effort to persuade U.S. congressional officials not to pass the Sergei Magnitsky Act. ForeignPolicy.com reports that the Russian Federation Council members met with several senators, congressmen, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, largely to argue the Kremlin’s version of Magnitsky’s death. They contended that Magnitsky colluded with the CEO of Hermitage Capital to defraud the Russian government of millions of dollars in tax revenues, and produced autopsy and investigative reports concluding that Magnitsky’s death was the fault of his doctors, rather than government or police officials. Although the Russian senators announced that they had convinced the U.S. senators to change their stance, a spokesman for senator John McCain disagreed. “He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say,” the spokesman said, “but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this.”
The international community joined the United States in voicing concerns over Russia’s continued crackdown on opposition groups after the upper house of parliament rapidly approved tighter restrictions on the internet and nongovernmental organizations. According to the New York Times, the United Nations human rights chief released a statement with the warning, “In just two months, we have seen a worrying shift in the legislative environment governing the enjoyment of the freedoms of assembly, association, speech and information in the Russian Federation,” creating a risk that could “stifle all criticism of government authorities and limit the ability of individuals to address issues of transparency, corruption and abuse of power.” The statement concluded by urging the Kremlin to “avoid taking further steps backward to a more restrictive era.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry angrily replied that the statement was “unbefitting” to the status of Ms. Pillay (UN human rights chief) as high commissioner. A United Russia deputy, Aleksandr Petrov, replied with the troubling comment, “Yes, there should be political activity, but it should not be allowed to rock the boat which is called Russia.”