The arrest of Italian activists last week in Russia during their visit to a partner Russian NGO committed to advocating for civil rights highlights the broad difficulties for human rights workers in the country and the troubled relationship between NGOs and Russian government.
'Presence of foreigners'
The arrest was performed while the activists were at the headquarters of a local association for civil rights, where they were comparing practices and discussing the specific difficulties of advocacy in Russia. Four police agents entered the building and arrested the Italian activists and took them to the police station.
The alleged reason for the arrest was a complaint by a Russian citizen regarding the "suspicious presence of foreigners." Once at the police station, they were held and interrogated for about 10 hours, until they were finally released with the help of consular authorities and a small administrative fine.
The arrest seemed unusual from the very beginning: police agents knew exactly the number of activists to be taken to the station, where to find them and immediately provided them a competent interpreter.
Moreover, the accusation of having violated the rules of entry to Russia is not credible, as every provision for the stay of the five Italians in Russia, including a visa suitable for their purposes, had been agreed with consular authorities.
It is very likely then that the actual victims of such measure were Russian activists, as much as the Italian ones.
Situation in Russia
Since the beginning of Putin's second term, and especially after 2012, when new measures detrimental to fundamental rights were introduced, the overall situation for organizations working in the field of human rights is not easy.
In particular, a law on "foreign agents" allowed the government to create a list of all organizations that receive funds from European or International sources, which are considered as working for foreign institutions and are thus greatly limited.
As a result, more NGOs have to depend on the Russian government for funding and therefore lose their independence. This increases the isolation of Russian NGOs from their partners in European countries.
Russian NGOs need our support
Russian advocates for human rights and for the rights of civil society are having a hard time doing their work. They are limited by a deceptive bureaucracy and a pervasive media control by the government. There are massive human rights violations that do not seem to decrease.
Russian NGOs need support by their European partners, regardless of the impediments put up by the government. They need to feel they are supported in their struggles by people who share the same goals.
At the end of the day, what just happened shows the one thing the Russian government fears and will not tolerate: constructive cooperation.