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Introduction: Sharing worst practice in the former Soviet Union

Article by Adam Hug

May 24, 2016

Introduction: Sharing worst practice in the former Soviet Union

Sharing worst practice: How countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression examines the extent to which governments across the former Soviet Union (FSU) collaborate in the development of repressive practices that underpin their rule. It looks at the development of ‘copycat’ legislation and behaviour within the region, examining to what extent this is the result of direct collaboration, independent emulation of such restrictive practices and where such actions are extensions of past poor practice within a particular country.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some states made tentative steps to open up their societies in the early 90s, others such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan never even began down that path.[1] Of those who did initially seek to move away from the Soviet authoritarian model, a number were plunged into civil conflict out of which arose more restrictive forms of Governments (such as in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia). The 2000s brought what were described as colour revolutions to Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004/5) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip Revolution, 2005), bringing to power pro-Western governments in Tbilisi and Kiev. The growing repressive streak in the Georgian government under Saakashvili saw it removed in elections in 2012, while in Ukraine the failings of the Orange Revolution leadership (and of the West) paved the way for the victory in 2010 of their 2004 opponent Viktor Yanukovych and his subsequent ousting in 2014 following the Maidan protests. Put simply, across the region beyond the Baltic states, there has been no consistent progress towards reform in those that have undergone political change, and the recent region-wide trends have been far from positive.


After the chaos of the 1990s, the region has seen the rise of a resurgent Russia seeking to restore its regional influence and dominance, the waxing and waning of US influence in Central Asia in response to the war in Afghanistan, and China making rapid economic and tentative political gains particularly in Central Asia, while the EU has been expanding its offer of partial integration, through the development of its neighbourhood policy – the Eastern Partnership. The influence of these external actors is an important part of this publication, examining the extent to which the promotion of the values agenda of these major powers shapes political and legislative agendas in the region.


Russia: Role model or ringleader?

Russia, once imperial master and dominant Soviet partner for the states of the region, continues to loom large across the human rights landscape. Through its leadership role in regional institutions and its often strong bilateral links, including security service and judicial collaboration, it plays a significant part in the promotion of practices that undermine human rights. Russia’s role as the primary export market and source of remittances from migrant workers for many in the region, combined with its role as security guarantor through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) provides it with considerable in-built leverage. Russian media and websites have significant penetration across the region, promoting Moscow’s news agenda and socially conservative cultural attitudes. Russian soft power is further projected through think-tanks and NGOs in receipt of Russian funding, assisted by local law makers with strong ties to Russia[2] and in a number of countries through the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia proactively promotes the twin themes of Russkiy Mir (Russian World), a project of linguistic and cultural values projection, and the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’, providing attempts at ideological depth to its support of existing regimes and opposition to Western engagement, in what it sees as its ‘near abroad’ or sphere of influence. This use of soft-power helps set a political tone rather than directs a specific course of action.


Russia continues to play the lead role in a range of post-Soviet successor agreements including the CIS, whose Minsk Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters[3] provides a legal framework for cooperation between security services facilitating potential abuses in extradition and other areas[4] and the CSTO. These regional bodies, as with the SCO discussed below, for the most part do not seek to bind or determine the activities of member states. However, at a political level they provide a forum for sharing and entrenching shared approaches to issues of security, governance and human rights, while at a technical and practitioner level, meetings held under the auspices of these groups provide opportunities for bureaucrats and security officials to meet and exchange ideas. These bodies seek to influence rather than direct, and for the most part they entrench and strengthen existing behaviours by the regimes of the region.


The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is rapidly emerging as Russia’s preferred mechanism for promoting regional integration under its terms. It is a project with considerable Russian political momentum and a more ambitious scope perhaps than previous agreements. While nominally economic in character, the greater the potential integration in one area, the greater the scope for informal influence and pressure in other areas. For example, Russia is believed to be putting pressure on Armenia and Kyrgyzstan to implement restrictions on internet freedom in line with Russian practice.


While Soviet nostalgia may persist, as Eka Iakobishvili notes a desire for the certainties of such rule remains notable amongst older generations particularly in Central Asia, this does not translate into a meaningful desire to subsume their newly regained (or created) national identities entirely into a Russian-led regional project. The regimes of the region for the most part value their independence, if not for anything else than for their ability to independently generate rents from local control without direct Russian competition. It has been notable however, that non-Russian EEU members have recently been trying to revive diplomatic ties with the EU and US to try to counter-balance Russian influence and maintain their independence and strategic room for manoeuvre. Kazakhstan, perhaps the second most powerful state within the EEU, is particularly wary of attempts to impinge on its international freedom of action and, with a sizable Russian minority and internal concerns over Russian media penetration for example, it has reasons to be watchful.[5] It is perhaps unsurprising that December 2015 saw Kazakhstan agree an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU.[6] It is not alone, Armenia has revived its talks with the EU over visas and other cooperation, Kyrgyzstan has amended or withdrawn Russian inspired legislation and even Belarus has sought to defy Moscow on sanctions against Ukraine (as the others have), attempted to play peacemaker (hosting the Minsk Agreements) and negotiating the end of most EU sanctions following dialogue and political prisoner releases.[7]


While this publication examines a broad range of themes, two notable trends have been seen across the region in recent years: increasing pressure on NGOs and particular restrictions on LGBTI rights activists. While in both cases these issues are building on pre-existing political and cultural norms, they are both in part taking inspiration from recent Russian legislative developments.


NGO legislation

The rash of new anti-NGO legislation may have gained its momentum from the regional regimes’ responses to the events of the Arab Spring, the 2012 Russian Presidential Elections and the Maidan protests in Ukraine. However, new legislative efforts re-building on a firm bedrock of restrictive practices against NGOs across the region going back to the Soviet period, in a number of cases strengthened in the mid-2000s following the series of ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Informal bureaucratic barriers to NGO registration and management have existed for a considerably longer, with regime critical groups often waiting months or years for basic bureaucratic tasks to be completed by government officials. However, whereas previously in several countries NGOs that were being informally blocked from official registration could operate on an unregistered basis, not receiving taxation or other benefits of registered status but operating legally, recent legislation as explored by Kate Levine, has sought to close down this work-around, requiring the registration of all significant payments irrespective of official status.


The use, or attempted use, of the Soviet-era term ‘foreign agent’ as part of civil society restriction attempts has its genesis in Russia, whose 2012 legislation, as examined in a number of the contributions contained herein, set down a firm marker against civil society groups receiving foreign funding. [8] The framing of human rights NGOs as political tools of Western powers seeking to undermine the independence of sovereign states is neither new nor restricted to this region, though both the Soviet legacy and Russian-promoted narratives bolster the influence of such thinking. As David Lewis points out, the extended essay by Azerbaijani Presidential Administration chief Ramiz Mehdiyev attacking Western, most notably US, NGOs as a threat to national sovereignty in 2014 is illustrative.[9] Mehdiyev is a Russia sympathetic voice within the Azerbaijani elite, but part of an administration seeking balanced relations with both Moscow and the West which jealously guards its own independence and control, a veteran of the Soviet-era practice but with new reasons to fear the influence of independent civil society groups undermining the regime.


Across the region a mixture of relative societal poverty, the link between the wealth of individuals and proximity to the regime and the often extreme pressure preventing potential donors or sponsors from working with regime-critical NGOs provides a formidably tough environment for NGOs to find alternative sources of local funding. Developing methods of blocking or restricting foreign funding and unregistered NGOs makes it very difficult for them to survive financially and may place activists in ambiguous legal positions as they search for alternative routes to funding, putting them at risk of prosecution.


LGBTI rights

Across the region there have been attempts to promote legislation restricting the ability of LGBTI activists, or indeed ordinary citizens, to discuss issues related to homosexuality, framing it in terms of the protection of children.[10] As Melissa Hooper explains, the Russian Federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’ adopted in 2013, followed years of local efforts at similar regulations and forms the template for similar, so far failed or pending, legislative attempts in Armenia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.[11] Not only would such legislation significantly restrict public education, it is designed to prevent discussion of LGBTI issues in wider society because all freely available media and public platforms could potentially be accessed by minors.


While homosexuality was in legalised in a number of states during the 1990s and early 2000s, this was often in part as a result of preparations for (or conditions of) membership of the Council of Europe, or other international pressure, rather than a deep-rooted domestic desire for reform. Male homosexuality remains illegal in long-standing pariah countries Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Culturally conservative and homophobic attitudes are an ingrained part of the social fabric across much of the region, providing fertile ground for socially conservative values promotion. For example, in a 2011 Caucasus Barometer survey, 96% of Armenians, 87% of Georgians and 84% of Azerbaijanis stated that ‘homosexuality can never be justified’, with little to no variation by age group.[12] LGBTI matters provide a perfect cultural ‘wedge’ issue for Russian television and other institutions, contrasting ‘traditional’ Russia with a decadent West. While basic anti-discrimination legislation has been part of EU requirements for visa liberalisation, Russian-led propaganda has promoted the idea that Eastern Partnership Countries would be required to adopt same-sex marriage, despite equal marriage being legal in only 11 EU member states. Recent attempts to crack down on LGBTI rights and groups represents both sharing and already shared worst practice.


Western worst practice

It is not only the countries of the region that are complicit in the development and spread of bad ideas and behaviour. The first publication in the FPC Exporting Repression series, Institutionally Blind: International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, addressed some of the ways in which Western politicians and institutions collude in downplaying human rights abuses in FSU.[13] It also looked at the ways in which Western indifference or opposition to international human rights institutions, such as the long-running British debate over its continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, helps influence narratives rejecting restrictions on ‘sovereignty’.[14] Similarly, some of the increasingly sophisticated public relations and communications strategies deployed by regimes in the region are often learnt from or organised in the West, the subject of an upcoming publication in the series entitled The Information Battle. In this publication, Melissa Hooper explores the role played by the US-based religious right in the promotion of Russian initiatives restricting LGBTI rights in the region. However, it is worth noting in addition that, in the security sphere Western actors, most notably the US, played a direct and significant part in sharing worst practice in the period after 9/11.


In his 2014 book Great Games, Local Rules, Alexander Cooley documents how Uzbekistan was used in the mid-2000s as a hub for the interrogation and, in all likelihood, torture of terrorist suspects in the custody of the CIA and other US intelligence agencies.[15] Detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism may also have been rendered to Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and other states. That US intelligence agencies were willing to flout the principle of non-refoulement in the mid-2000s does make it significantly harder for Western voices, even those in no way involved in the practice, to be taken as sincere by governments in the region when challenging cases of detainee transfer and the kidnapping of activists back to countries suspected of torture, or indeed the practice of torture itself.[16]


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and state security

As Western influence on the security landscape fades in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, China’s role continues to develop. In his contribution to this collection, Thomas Ambrosio points out that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) provides a mechanism for encouraging cooperation between the two authoritarian big-beasts, Russia and China, concerning influence in Central Asia, where China’s rapidly growing economic involvement has the potential to create competition with Russia. However, both the major powers share a similar approach to tackling threats to their political control, whether that be from peaceful opposition or extremist violence, often seeking to elide the two concepts. As a number of authors explain in this publication, security legislation is often used to pressure NGOs and activists, particularly those representing minority groups or pious (but non-violent) religious communities. The national security and stability rationale is also used to underpin the restrictions on NGO funding from the West, particularly in the wake of events in Ukraine as the Russian government’s argument is that these events were driven by NGOs funded by Western security services, as noted by Levine and others.


The structural approach to law of the SCO embeds the primacy of national sovereignty over internal rules and norms. As Cooley noted, while the US in the Bush era sought ways to circumvent international law when dealing with prisoners of war from non-state actors (‘enemy combatants’) and other prisoners in the ‘War on Terror’, China and Russia through the SCO have sought to override such obligations by formally placing state (and regime) security concerns above any formal rights requirements through regional treaties that aim to override UN and other obligations.


Ambrosio examines the impact of the organisation’s agreements, such as the Convention on the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism on the regional order and the role of its Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) that works under considerable secrecy to coordinate and strengthen national security services.[17] The SCO structures are light on bureaucratic depth and, as a regional organisation designed to help resist efforts to undermine national sovereignty/hold regimes accountable for breaches of human rights best practice, the level of sovereignty pooling is limited to non-existent. This ‘national first’ approach is evident, for example in their approach to online freedom. At the 2014 SCO Summit in Danshube its members strengthened their approach to restricting online access with the declaration stating that internet governance should be based on the principle of respect ‘for national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. ’[18] The stated aim would be ‘preventing the use of information and communications technologies which intend to undermine the political, economic and public safety and stability of the Member States, as well as the universal moral foundations of social life, in order to stop the promotion of the ideas of terrorism, extremism, separatism, radicalism, fascism and chauvinism by the use of the Internet’. To do this they would ‘support the development of universal rules’, only of course if such rules enshrined the right of states to police internet access as they wish, for their own benefit.


This publication brings together a range of different international experts to assess the different areas of authoritarian collaboration and learning that help to shape repressive behaviours in the region.

What our authors say

David Lewis argues that across the former Soviet Union, a new type of authoritarianism has become the default political system. From Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, political development in most post-Soviet states reflects a ‘Moscow Consensus’, a set of ideas and principles that underpin a particular regional form of authoritarianism. Although these regimes mimic liberal ideas such as civil society and democratic elections, in practice they are highly concentrated authoritarian systems, centred on a single leader. ‘Political technologists’ construct narratives to legitimise the system, while intelligence and security agencies constrain any independent journalism or political activism. Politics and business are fused into a single system of power that ensures control over any independent entrepreneurs and enrichment for a small elite. These states insist on their own sovereignty, but rely on offshore companies to manage personal wealth, and use Interpol and foreign courts to track down opponents in exile. So far, such regimes have been remarkably resilient, partly because democratic initiatives in the region have failed to offer a convincing alternative. But as the economic model of the Moscow Consensus comes under strain, unresolved social and political problems are likely to become an increasing challenge for governments in Eurasia.


Eka Iakobishvili discusses how countries and institutions in the former Soviet Union help create legal tools of repression. She uses the example of the ‘NGO law’ to demonstrate how totalitarian regimes in former Soviet countries share worst practices whilst trying to maintain their power. Eka argues that the closer the ties former Soviet countries have maintained with the Russian Federation, the stronger the political influence has been. Moreover, Eka goes beyond the current legal and political discourse to suggest that historical understandings of the shared history of law-making in post-Soviet countries is important when studying the post-Soviet legal culture and the ways in which ‘friendly experience-sharing’ takes place. Though keen for a change from the early stages, the crisis of seeking an identity has haunted these nations with civil unrests, dictatorial regimes and widespread social nihilism fuelled by corruption and disrespect for the rule of law. Russia’s attempts to retain control over the former Soviet states goes hand in hand with the creation of a number of regional bodies aimed at promoting economic growth and maintaining security in the region. This is also combined with a shared interest in curbing civil society and muting the opinions of dissenters as a way of maintaining power. Eka argues that all these together, as well as Russia’s continued support for some of the most fragile countries in Central Asia, aligned with longing for the certainties of Soviet rule, and most importantly, the shared practice of law, make it easy for laws to travel and for worst practices to be shared.


Joanna Hoare and Maisy Weicherding write that NGOs in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have faced an increasingly hostile environment over the last two years. This is due in part to authorities in these countries adopting tactics borrowed from Russia, namely a combination of concerted efforts to smear and delegitimise NGOs as ‘foreign agents’, legislation designed to control and restrict their activities and sources of funding, and the punitive use of tax and other bureaucratic inspections. That said, to get the full picture as to why civic space in these countries is shrinking, it is important to look beyond Russia’s influence.


Melissa Hooper writes that Russia has begun to incorporate a ‘traditional values’ agenda as part of its foreign policy platform. Coinciding with policy developments within Russia, it has pushed other nations to enact laws restricting the rights of LGBT persons, limiting information available to minors about ‘non-traditional relationships’, and protecting the rights of parents over their children.  We see evidence of this pressure on the borders of the EU (Armenia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia), where governments must decide whether to ally themselves with the values of democracy and individual rights and accept support from the EU, or implement policies that limit LGBT rights and Western influence in the name of protecting the ‘traditional family’. Russian messaging has exacerbated this divide by describing it as a ‘culture war’ between traditional values protected by Russia and the EU’s ‘Gayropa, where foreign policy centers on hedonistic policies that prioritise gay marriage. So far, all of these countries have rejected propaganda laws put forward in late 2012 and 2013, immediately after Russia passed its own law. Some specifically did so in order to obtain funding from the EU. However, opportunities still exist in this region for Russian influence and ‘traditional family values’ to take hold – especially in Georgia and Ukraine where local orthodox churches wield great political power – like the Russian Orthodox Church – and themselves advocate for these policies, and especially where Russian language media holds sway. In Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the combination of a conservative society and a reliance on Russian language media, has led governments to seriously consider propaganda laws and other Russian-style policies. Playing into Russian foreign policy priorities is the historical notion of Russkiy Mir, or the unification of the Russian-speaking world under Russia.  Factors contributing to and supporting Russian leadership in the traditional values sphere are Russia’s control of content in Russian language media and the development of relationships between Russian political conservatives and the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative politicians and religious figures in the West, especially the United States.


Kate Levine argues that the ability of civil society organisations to seek, secure and use resources, including foreign funding, is a fundamental component of their right to exist and effectively operate. International human rights bodies have affirmed this right. However, in recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of states seeking to use the law to severely limit access to foreign funding for NGOs. Evidence of this trend has been documented globally, as well as in the former Soviet Union. This article focuses on repressive laws designed to restrict access to foreign funding and ultimately stifle the work of independent civil society in Russia and Azerbaijan, and attempts to introduce similar provisions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The implementation of these laws has made it significantly more difficult for local human rights NGOs to survive, and has required them to divert valuable time and resources away from their core work of protecting human rights. Further, some foreign donors have either been banned from operating locally, or have chosen to withdraw for fear of being found to violate the repressive national legal framework. This article highlights some of the consequences of these laws, the reactions of some of the affected NGOs and international organisations, and considers the possible motives of the states concerned.


Katie Morris argues that freedom of expression is in decline in most states of the former Soviet Union, although the extent and focus of repression differs according to country. The Ukraine crisis precipitated a renewed assault on freedom of expression: having already brought traditional media to heel, authoritarian leaders are now focusing on extinguishing the few remaining spaces for free expression – particularly the internet, frequently justifying their actions on the grounds of national security. This essay explores how increasingly restrictive legislative environments and the expansion of digital technologies, particularly surveillance, are being used to censor expression. New restrictions do not just target well known journalists or dissidents, but increasingly ordinary people, often expressing themselves online, creating a chilling effect that encourages self-censorship.


Michael Hamilton examines the sharing of bad practices in the legal regulation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in ‘hybrid regimes’ in the former Soviet Union. Whilst noting persistent concerns about the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, and repeated failures to adequately protect assembly participants from violent counter-demonstrators, the essay focuses instead on three recurring characteristics of the legal framework: excessive discretion conferred on regulatory authorities (powers); notification requirements that are tantamount to authorisation requirements (procedures); and the imposition of disproportionate sanctions for relatively minor infractions of the law (penalties). Although there are clearly regional exceptions, the essay argues that there has broadly been a failure to embed the principle of proportionality in the legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (especially in relation to these powers, procedures and penalties). It is suggested that this failure is underpinned by a regulatory mind-set focused primarily on the management and control of assemblies, rather than their facilitation.


Thomas Ambrosio writes that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) purports to be a broad-based international organisation formally tasked with promoting multilateral cooperation within Central Asia. While it has done this by creating institutional links between its members and ensuring that that the region does not become an arena for geopolitical competition between Russia and China, a deeper look at this organisation illustrates that, at a fundamental level, it is dedicated to preserving the political status quo in Central Asia. This essay examines forty-eight SCO documents and utilises social network analysis to depict the legal framework which has emerged since the SCO’s formation in 2001. It shows that authoritarian practices are deeply embedded in the core of this framework under the guise of combating the so-called ‘Three Evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Consequently, those factors resisting democratisation at the domestic level are reinforced by a non-democratic regional order.

[1] The Baltic states, annexed by the Soviets during the Second World War, provide a clear exception to the rule as their transition into broadly stable democracies and EU member states has been so dramatic as to place them outside the scope of this publication.

[2] Not that Russia should be restricted from providing support to organizations in the region, simply that appropriate rules on NGOs should apply to both Western and Russian backed organisations equally. It is worth noting that the recent decision to dramatically water down the restrictive provisions from the Kyrgyz anti-NGO legislation took place after its initial proponents, legislators strong Russian links, were not returned in Parliamentary elections . Anna Lelik, Kyrgyzstan: Sting Removed From Foreign Agents Bill, Eurasianet, April 2016,

[3] See for example, The Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters,

[4] As documented in Adam Hug (ed.), Shelter from the storm?, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014,

[5] Joanna Lillis, Journalists Fret as Russian Media Swamps Kazakhstan, November 2014,

[6] Yet to be ratified.

[7] For more see Dr Rilka Dragneva and Dr Kataryna Wolczuk, The Eurasian Economic Union – What kind of alternative to the Eastern Partnership, in Adam Hug (ed.), Trouble in the Neighbourhood, Foreign Policy Centre, February 2015,

[8] Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Russia’s Foreign Agent law: Violating human rights and attacking civil society, June 2014,

[9] Contact.Az, Mehdiyev Accuses US of ‘Color Revolution’, December 2014, For the full text in Russian visit

[10] There are echoes of the 1998-2003 UK legislation ‘Section 28’ which prohibited local authorities, public bodies  and schools from taking measures that would ‘intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’, which though without creating a criminal offense restricted the ability of schools and other organisations debating issues relating to LGBTI issues. The Russian legislation however takes this prohibition to society as a whole rather than just about the use of public money.

[11] Human Rights First, Spread of Russian-Style Propaganda Laws, March 2016, EU member state Lithuania is the only state in the wider region to recently pass and maintain such legislation.

[12] Caucasus Research Resource Centre, Attitudes towards homosexuality to in the South Caucasus, July 2013,

[13] Adam Hug (ed.), Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, Foreign Policy Centre, February 2016,

[14] Most recently British Home Secretary Theresa May, a front-runner in the long-race to replace David Cameron as UK Prime Minister, recently called for Britain to leave the convention and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

[15] Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, January 2014, Oxford University Press. EU member states including the UK were used for over flight and refueling purposes as part of this programme.

[16] As documented in the FPC’s 2014 Shelter from the Storm publication.

[17] Richard Weitz, Uzbekistan: A Peek Inside an SCO Anti-Terrorism Center

[18] INCYDER Information Security Discussed at the Dushanbe Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, October 2014,

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