By John Finerty
The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing on May 20, 2004 to review governance practices and human rights in the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin. Witnesses focused on media independence, religious freedom, judicial procedures, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and the war in Chechnya.
Opening the hearing, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed apprehension that President Putin was leading Russia in an authoritarian direction, increasingly reliant on Russia’s security apparatus and intelligence agencies to govern the country. Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) also voiced his concerns, focusing on corruption in the Russian Government and abuses in the war in Chechnya.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Steven Pifer stated that Russians enjoy freedom of travel and emigration, and an independent print media that engages in robust political debates; religious association and expression is generally free, and Russians have incorporated voting into their political practices. However, Pifer voiced concern with the Putin administration’s undue influence on judicial proceedings, state control or sway over the broadcast media, the pressuring of non-governmental organizations, anti-Semitism, abuses in the war in Chechnya, and the lack of a level electoral playing field for the political opposition.
Ambassador Pifer cited the U.S. record of advocating democratization and human rights to the Russian leadership, while pursuing cooperation on mutual security interests such as the war on terrorism, arms control, counter-proliferation, and the resolution of regional conflicts.
Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and chairman of Committee 2008: Free Choice, presented a critical view of the Putin administration, lamenting the slide of the Russian Government into authoritarianism. He described a variety of policies undertaken by the Putin administration that he viewed as backtracking from the democratic progress of the 1990s, including the curtailment of civil liberties and the flagrant abuse of human rights.
Specifically, Kasparov described government influence over the broadcast media and manipulation of elections. The war in Chechnya had been sidelined as a topic of news discussion, he asserted, thus facilitating the concealment of wartime human rights abuses. He also faulted the media for disregarding the ineptness of government responses to terrorist attacks. On elections, Kasparov characterized the December 2003 parliamentary polls as unfair, and predicted that President Putin would use parliamentary maneuvers to change the constitution and extend his term, perhaps indefinitely.
Mr. Kasparov condemned Russian activities in the Chechen war and described how “hundreds of Chechens, if not thousands, are being interrogated, tortured and killed” by Russian soldiers. He called for the deployment of independent observers to monitor Russian behavior and promote observance of human rights. As a final critique, Kasparov charged that Putin had stripped the judicial system of its independence and was using it to silence political opponents and critics, such as Mikhail Khordorkovsky and Igor Sutyagin.
As for solutions, Kasparov highlighted his efforts to expose the corruption of the December 2003 elections through a lawsuit and public advocacy. He also urged the United States to use diplomatic means to leverage the Russian Government into democratic and civil liberties concessions.
Edward Lozansky, president of Russia House and the American University in Moscow, offered a contrasting opinion, pointing to the successes of the Putin administration in taming the “oligarchs” and encouraging economic growth. He viewed state control of the broadcast media as less of a crisis, contending that free alternatives, such as print, electronic, and foreign media, provide the people with a variety of viewpoints. Ultimately, Dr. Lozansky argued, “President Putin enjoys overwhelming support of the Russian people” and that the Russian people “can freely express their opinions.”
In closing, Lozansky suggested the United States should not undermine its relationship with Russia through unnecessary criticism, since bilateral cooperation between the nations remains essential in the war on terrorism, space exploration, energy, and the environment. Engagement and dialogue, rather than condemnation, is paramount, he suggested.
Reverend Igor Nikitin, president of the Association of Christian Churches in Russia, offered a mixed assessment of the status of religious liberty in Russia. In northwest Russia and St. Petersburg particularly, religious tolerance is the norm. In other regions, however, Protestant churches and other non-Orthodox denominations have experienced discrimination and bureaucratic malfeasance. For instance, an unconstitutional requirement for churches to register their members – as opposed to merely the institution – is frequently enforced by local authorities, and a Moscow court has ordered the “liquidation” of the city’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nikitin urged measures to educate Russian officials on the importance of religious freedom as a civil liberty.
Nickolai Butkevich, Research and Advocacy Director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, discussed the situation regarding xenophobia and the treatment of minorities in Russia. Mr. Butkevich noted that President Putin has made efforts at the national level to combat xenophobia, but that implementation of relevant directives is uneven at the local level. Some regions and cities have combated xenophobia and anti-Semitism, while other authorities have actively encouraged it. Mr. Butkevich described cases in Vladivostok, Voronezh, and other cities where individuals had been subject to abuse and local authorities reacted uncaringly or in collusion with perpetrators.
In answer to a question posed by Chairman Smith on the disparity between the Russian Government’s public and international pronouncements that it will combat anti-Semitism and its failed implementation of such policies domestically, Butkevich blamed the disparity on a lack of prioritization by the central government. Mr. Kasparov contended though that President Putin has done nothing to address anti-Semitism or quell xenophobia.
Answering other questions on the attitudes of the United States and the West toward the Chechen situation, governmental corruption, and the judiciary, Dr. Lozansky replied that Russia is stabilizing under the pragmatic policies of President Putin and that the international community must engage the country on matters of mutual interest.
The witnesses responded with divergent views as to whether Russia was moving toward autocracy. While Kasparov made his case strongly that Russia was, Lozansky again insisted that it was not. Mr. Butkevich suggested that Russia was “backsliding toward authoritarianism,” but that President Putin certainly retains popular support. Reverend Nikitin stressed that the next few years will determine whether Russia evolves toward civil and religious liberty or tsarist, oppressive governance reemerges.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent 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 from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Colby Daughtry contributed to this article.