By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor
On June 7, 2004, the United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing with four prominent Russian human rights activists to examine the state of human rights and civil liberties in the Russian Federation. Entitled “Russia: Are Rights in Retreat?,” the briefing covered such topics as elections, Chechnya, religious liberty, media freedom and the overall functioning of the legislative and judicial branches. The briefing was a follow up to the Commission’s May 20th hearing on “Human Rights in Putin’s Russia.”
The briefing panel included Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group and President of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. Other participants were Arseni Roginsky, Chairman of the International Memorial Society; Alexei Simonov, Head of the Glasnost Defense Fund; and Mara Polyakova, Director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise.
Commission Deputy Chief of Staff Ronald J. McNamara began the briefing with a moment of silence to honor the passing of President Ronald Reagan, a “stalwart supporter of freedom and human rights.” McNamara noted the timeliness of the briefing given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s U.S. visit to Sea Island, Georgia, for the G-8 Summit. He stated that despite Putin’s claim that “nothing will stop Russia” in its quest for economic and democratic freedom, some of Putin’s comments in his State of the Federation address had raised concerns over the Kremlin’s commitment to promote civil society in Russia. Putin’s accusations of NGOs seeking outside funding and not addressing serious issues were particularly troubling insofar as they may signal the beginning of a crackdown against NGOs in Russia. Mr. McNamara also referenced the growing problem of “spy mania,” with potentially chilling implications for Russia’s academics and scientific community.
Arseni Roginsky began his remarks by stating that the trend in Russia over the past few years has been marked by “the efforts of the powers-that-be to destroy the isolated islands of independence and democracy that still continue to exist in Russia.” Specifically, Roginsky pointed to the new Russian law limiting public demonstrations and a new law on referenda. In sentiments echoed by other panelists, he decried the emergence of “made-to-order” elections controlled almost exclusively by the Putin administration and moneyed interests. Ms. Alexeeva later reiterated the concern about the changes on referenda, noting that even if the requisite two million signatures can be garnered, under the new law she believes mid-level Russian bureaucrats will be able to stop indefinitely the progress of a referendum.
While the Putin administration has been quick to point to the Russian Constitution and its promise of free speech, Roginsky and panelist Alexei Simonov both claimed that this de jure right does not exist in reality. According to Simonov, while Russians may be legally entitled to say or print controversial statements, these sentiments are ignored by the powers-that-be. He contended that “[freedom of speech] means not only to shout out but to be heard.” According to Simonov, there are only four independent-minded Russian magazines with a combined circulation of around 500,000. Smaller such newspapers exist as well, but the costs of protecting against defamation suits, which number more than 50 per month according to Simonov, make it increasingly hard for them to stay in business. He also stated that most editorials in newspapers are written by what amount to essentially local bureaucrats; most newspapers rely on government or private funding, making them hardly free and independent. Simonov estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of newspapers are self-sustaining. “Most of them take money from somewhere, and each has this special somewhere, but nobody wants to speak of these ‘somewheres,’” he concluded.
Related to this issue is more direct government control over radio and television broadcasts which are the main source of information for most Russians. Ms. Alexeeva and other panelists asserted that “government-controlled media reported those campaigns [in 2003/2004] in an utterly biased way,” denying access to opposition candidates and giving the United Russia Party extensive coverage.
Another common theme throughout the briefing was the lack of judicial independence or reform. Mr. Roginsky prefaced the topic by noting that “…the court system is under great influence of the nationalistic, patriotic ideology that is flourishing in Russia at this time.” He specifically spoke of a recent case involving four Russian soldiers who admitted to killing six Chechen civilians by mistake and then attempting to cover it up. In Mr. Roginsky’s words, “The jury and the courts did state that indeed the murder had taken place; the people were killed. The people who were being tried were those who perpetrated the killing; however, they were not [found] guilty.”
Mara Polyakova spoke extensively about judicial reform. She admitted that new democratic laws are being passed which reflect democratic principles, but the mechanisms needed to implement these principles are often lacking or are thwarted. She also stated that prisoners in Russia are tortured and that court records are still falsified. “The judges are still dependent in spite of the fact that their independence was loudly proclaimed in the constitution and other laws, because the real power remains in the hands of the chairmen of the courts who are part of or prone to influence by the executive,” Polyakova said.
Speaking specifically on the war in Chechnya, Roginsky described the large number of Chechen civilians abducted or kidnapped monthly, and the one-sided propaganda about the conflict emanating from the state-controlled media. However, Mr. Roginsky denied that the term “genocide” applies to the current Chechen situation (as opposed to the 1944 deportations), calling it instead state-sponsored terror. In response to a question regarding cutbacks in U.S. assistance for democracy programs in Russia, Simonov said, “Americans do not quite correctly understand what is happening in Russia. They seem to like the democratic record of the current Russian Government, and they seem to be taking this rhetoric as the truth.” On a similar note, he later recommended that U.S. officials and international organizations should “never take at face value anything said by officials in Russia.”
Mr. McNamara raised the religious freedom issue, specifically the labeling of non-Russian Orthodox groups as “non-traditional religions” and the court-ordered “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Moscow, despite federal recognition. Ms. Alexeeva responded by saying that it would appear the Russian Orthodox Church is striving to become a state religion as it once was. The panelists were pessimistic about the chances of a successful appeal of the recent Moscow court decision against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although Simonov suggested that any pressure from President Bush during the G-8 Summit might have an impact.
Despite the comments of the panelists painting a fairly bleak picture of the state of civil and human rights in Russia, Ms. Alexeeva did caution that “if you look from the outside in, everything seems to be more frightening than when you are on the inside of that state. I don’t think the fascist system is being created in our country, and even less that it has already been created.”
In closing the briefing, Mr. McNamara sought to put events in perspective by recalling that in November 1986 there were 700 known Soviet political prisoners and prisoners of conscience as well as tens of thousands of divided families in the U.S.S.R. He noted that all of those prisoners had been released and many of those emigration cases resolved by January 19, 1989, President Reagan’s final day in office.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Nicholas Adams contributed to this article.