In 2013, Russia implemented new laws restricting political freedom. The EU was critical but unable to find new ways of supporting political activism in Russia.
Europeans seek to improve political freedom in Russia and have higher expectations than in a country such as China. But, in 2013, Russia implemented a set of restrictive laws hampering work conditions for NGOs, restricting freedom of assembly, re-criminalising slander, and re-defining treason. During the spring and early summer, prosecutors searched more than 2,000 NGOs; those that were found to be in breach of the new legislation were fined. Six NGOs were forced to close under various pretexts. In July, Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure, was convicted and jailed on a fabricated case, only to be released pending appeal a day later. He was therefore able to participate in the mayoral elections in Moscow, which this time were remarkably fair, with official and unofficial counts differing by just a few percentage points. Many rank-and-file protesters arrested for allegedly causing riots on 6 May 2012 also spent the bulk of 2013 behind bars. The December amnesty that brought freedom to many of them did away with the prominent symbols of the arbitrary legal system but left the system itself intact.
There was also a further deterioration in media freedom, as direct government pressure became more forceful and fearful media owners self-censored. In December – exactly at the time when the protests in Ukraine peaked – a major overhaul of state-owned media was announced. This will result in a merger of several channels into a single holding under the leadership of a notoriously illiberal TV-commentator and possibly the closure of the RIA Novosti news agency, which had tried to maintain respectable journalistic standards.
European leaders protested about restrictions on political and media freedom in Russia and in particular about Navalny’s imprisonment. But the EU has not yet figured out how to respond to the situation or how to help Russian civil society now that laws restricting foreign donations are in place. A few member states such as Estonia and Finland were sympathetic to political asylum requests from Russia.