The human rights situation in modern Russia has been extremely rocky since Putin first took power as president. Today, the coronavirus pandemic has given Putin and his administration a new weapon to further suppress his citizens under the pretense of combating the spread of the disease. In addition, it’s been used as a sly tool to crack down on his dissidents, while the media’s attention is focused on the pandemic.
Just as his American ally Donald Trump did at first, President Putin wholly denied the existence of a pandemic caused by COVID-19, that is, until it was politically convenient. The Kremlin issued statements that there was no outbreak and any established cases were brought in by foreigners. Now, Putin and the rest of the government has reversed its position, likely seeing the opportunity it provides to encroach on the personal lives of its citizens’, as well as take measures to consolidate his power. This is evident in his cancelling of a referendum that likely would have resulted in term limits being instituted to prevent him from running again.
The most significant threat to Russian democracy is in how the pandemic has allowed for the surveillance state to grow. In transferring the power to make quarantine decisions to local government officials, Putin has made certain regions of the country “testing grounds for how much increased surveillance citizens will accept, while sheltering the Kremlin from any blowback”. To enforce social distancing and a curfew, citizens have to download an app with a QR code that will track their movements and see whether they’ve come into contact with an infected person. However, opposition leaders have expressed their fears that it will actually be used to track the internet history of citizens and their access to media critical of Putin and his supporters. The government’s use of cameras has increased, which concerned watchdog groups have stated will further infringe on peoples’ privacy and will give the government impotence to spie on public places even after the crisis has subsided. Under the guise of protecting the nation from a potential outbreak, the government has been able to use fear to gather people’s personal data.
Other COVID-19 measures that pose a threat to Russian democracy have been in how they’ve interfered with the rights of assembly for citizens. While Russia has seen an extremely low amount of cases, the government crackdown on simply being in public spaces has been significant. Parliament has passed harsh penalties that include a possible jail sentence for breaking the quarantine, as well as the police performing random stops in public areas and businesses. The low amount of cases within Russia give merit to the argument that Putin is using the epidemic to crackdown on his citizens’ rights to assemble publicly.
The next few weeks will determine whether the actions of Putin and local government actors are to truly combat coronavirus, or contribute to democratic backsliding. Those tracking the human rights situation within Russia will have to look at the correlation between the number of cases, and the severity of the government’s protective measures.