The news about Russia was overwhelmingly negative in 2013 as new laws severely curtailed freedom of expression, assembly, and association. However, despite these alarming developments, Russian civil society has displayed great resilience by refusing to register as “foreign agents” (as required by one new law) and by undertaking a vigorous strategy of legal defense. Some of the country’s most prominent human rights and legal assistance organizations have mounted robust legal challenges to the repressive new laws.
As these cases progress, Russian NGOs across the country have continued to score victories by tapping into the same spirit of civic activism the government crackdown sought to diminish. Small regional NGOs have achieved numerous successes, with courts agreeing that they are not engaged in “political activity” and thus not required to register as foreign agents. A number of important cases remained in various appeal stages in 2013, but these organizations found ways to continue working. The Endowment has prioritized projects that help civil society defend their rights using legal remedies, while simultaneously advocating for greater transparency, freedom of speech and respect for human rights.
Anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny emerged as the most charismatic leadership figure among the Russian opposition. The government retaliated by finding him guilty of embezzling $500,000 from a state-owned timber company. This July decision sparked protests in Moscow and in other cities around Russia and two days later Navalny was suddenly freed from detention and permitted to campaign for the mayor of Moscow. His campaign galvanized opposition voters and garnered 27% of the vote after mobilizing a modern and energetic campaign. Though Navalny lost, the campaign showed that an opposition candidate can present a serious challenge to the authorities, and elsewhere in Russia a handful of opposition candidates won mayoral and city council positions. As the year drew to a close, many in the opposition were hopeful.
Elsewhere in Eurasia, presidential elections dominated the agenda. Georgia’s election confirmed that it was on a path toward becoming a democracy and Armenia’s showed a strong constituency in support of the opposition. However, in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan the presidential elections fell far short of international standards and confirmed a trend toward deepening authoritarianism.
Georgia saw several important initiatives, including constitutional amendments and reforms of the judiciary, culminating in a free and fair presidential election. Georgian civil society seized the opportunity to advance long sought after reforms. The International Society for Free Elections and Democracy advocated for improvements to the electoral code and the law on local government, producing recommendations that formed the basis of laws later adopted by the parliament. Armenia’s presidential elections demonstrated that, despite a lack of political leadership among the opposition parties, a large portion of the Armenian electorate favors change. NED support for the Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center helped them capitalize on newfound interest from independent civil society in election monitoring, and continue this important work during municipal elections.
Azerbaijan’s dramatic crackdown on civil society accompanied the presidential election and continued unabated after the ballot. Azerbaijan passed repressive new laws, and has numerous new political prisoners, including prominent civil society leaders. Despite these difficulties, NED grantees worked in concert to protect and support activists, and maintain unity around human rights and advocacy campaigns. In Tajikistan, the presidential elections were characterized by harassment of the opposition and intimidation of civil society. Several NED grantees came under threat in 2013, and NED has expanded support for regional resource centers and programs aimed at empowering women.
In Kyrgyzstan, NED funded programs continued to solidify the democratic gains of the past several years. Despite the growth of presidential power under President Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan still represents the most promise for democratic development in Central Asia in the near term. NED has increased support for good governance programs, particularly at the local government level, while maintaining its support for freedom of information and core human rights. NED supported organizations across the country, but especially those in the volatile southern region. Spravedlivost continued to monitor human rights abuses and ethnic tensions in the south, and the Rural Development Fund provided conflict resolution in the increasingly restive Batken region. These programs helped to address the ethnic tensions that remain one of the country’s most serious challenges.
In Kazakhstan, the government continued to intimidate and imprison journalists and civil society activists. More than 40 independent media outlets were threatened with legal action or shut down in 2013. Despite the government pressure, NED grantees continued to struggle for democratic principles, and provided legal assistance to embattled media outlets. NED also continued to support human rights, independent media, and NGO development in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where extreme forms of authoritarianism have severely reduced the space for independent civil society.