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Dmitrievsky and others are seeking to protect and reclaim freedoms won in the final years of the Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policy of glasnost, or greater openness. Later, in the immediate post-Soviet era, Boris Yeltsin presided over a scrappy, imperfect democratic flowering. Activists say that, since he took office in 2000, Putin has tried to bottle up the explosion of interest in human rights, free speech and democratic accountability that took place in the 1990s. Says Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independents in parliament: "The regime has achieved a state of total manipulation of the people." Most key media outlets, especially national television, are in the hands of the state or of Putin's close allies. In today's Russia, it is hard to find a newspaper that is truly independent and uncowed, which is why the fearless investigative reporting of Politkovskaya was so remarkable. Just recently, Vladimir Rakhmankov, the editor of a Web magazine in the city of Ivanovo, was fined $750 for a satirical critique of Putin's plans to boost birthrates in Russia. (Rakhmankov slyly noted that foxes, bears and other animals breed at the city zoo because they are well looked after.) It was only thanks to the intervention of a press-freedom group called the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations that Rakhmankov wasn't jailed, as local prosecutors had demanded. "Our lawyers are always swamped with legal actions taken against local journalists, mostly on trumped-up charges," says Oleg Panfilov, the Center's founder.
Critically, this year has seen two pieces of highly controversial legislation. One law requires all nongovernmental organizations (ngos) to reregister with the state and submit detailed plans about their activities; a second revises an earlier law that attempts to control political extremism. (Both were used against Dmitrievsky.) Putin has said that the extremism law will improve Russian security in an era of terrorism, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserts that the ngo legislation is actually less restrictive than similar laws in France, Finland and Israel. Foreign groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that have reregistered say the process is cumbersome and bureaucratic, though so far only three foreign ngos have had their credentials rejected, and all can reapply. But the real test will come in the next few months, when Russian ngos go through the same process.
By any standard, however, the past few weeks have been grim ones for activists. In addition to the deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko, Lev Ponomarev, a veteran campaigner, was arrested and jailed for three days in late September for organizing a memorial for the victims of the Beslan school hostage tragedy. His crime: holding an unauthorized rally. In early October, Manfred Nowak, a United Nations rapporteur on torture, was forced to postpone a fact-finding trip to Chechnya and the northern Caucasus after he was told that his intention to visit detention facilities unannounced and interview detainees would contravene Russian law. A human-rights activist in Ingushetia had her nose broken when a demonstration to commemorate Politkovskaya was dispersed by police. Dmitrievsky's organization was shut down. "October had me holding my head in my hands," says Allison Gill, who heads the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.
Has anyone noticed? Some dissidents complain that, now that the cold war is over, Russia can get away with anything. "At least in the Soviet Union times there was a steady drumbeat of people in the West talking about the problem. Today, lots of Russian activists feel isolated," says Gill. That's not to say there's no support; the European Union and the Council of Europe hold regular discussions about human-rights issues with Russian authorities, and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently raised the matter of Khodorkovsky's imprisonment directly with Putin, saying the conditions of the oil boss's detention were "unacceptable."