By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor
The United States Helsinki Commission held a staff-level briefing on November 13, 2003 with Tanya Lokshina, Executive Director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, to discuss the status of human rights and democratic development in the Russian Federation. Ms. Lokshina was accompanied by Maureen Greenwood, Advocacy Director for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA and Dr. Sarah E. Mendelson, Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ms. Lokshina opened the meeting by noting the human rights community in Russia is greatly concerned about the arrest of former YUKOS chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reportedly Russia’s richest man arrested on tax evasion and fraud charges after contributing money to political opposition parties. The case, she said, proves beyond doubt that the Russian state is out to get any independent voice.
Khodorkovsky is different from other politicians, she stated. While his fortune may have had questionable origins (“fraud and tax evasion are prevalent everywhere”) Khodorkovsky’s current corporate policy of transparency is not useful to a corrupt government bureaucracy. He also supported opposition forces in the Duma, ranging from free-market, pro-reform parties to the Communists.
“The action against Yukos sent a clear signal to other investors,” Lokshina continued. “Do not be independent. Do not support transparent dealings with parties or civil society initiatives…. Now the rest of the business community is terrified to follow suit.”
Regarding freedom of the media, Lokshina said there is no level of media not controlled by the state. Even non-state television channels are controlled by managers who are themselves controlled by the state. There is also little independent print media in Russia.
Ms. Lokshina, who had been in Grozny for the Chechen presidential elections, called the exercise a combination of comedy and tragedy. In the face of overwhelming indifference of the population and empty voting stations, the official statistics were not to be believed, she maintained.
On election day, Lokshina had not seen any voters except in special places arranged for foreign journalists. She also saw precinct protocols where 100% of the eligible voters had supposedly cast 100% of their ballots in favor of incumbent President Kadyrov – a virtual impossibility, given an inevitable percentage of disqualified (i.e., defaced or incorrectly filled out) ballots. To be sure, any serious competition for Kadyrov had been eased off the ballot long before election day.
Ms. Lokshina also saw the recent gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg–with the heavy-handed use of “administrative resources” by the pro-Putin apparat playing a major role–as a harbinger of future elections throughout Russia. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on December 7, with presidential elections expected in March 2004.
The three experts agreed that the recent Constitutional Court decision annulling the restrictive law on election coverage of candidates and election “propaganda” was a positive, albeit tardy, step.
Ms. Lokshina said one of the worst problems is the arbitrary law enforcement, and that “Everything that happens in Chechnya also happens in the rest of Russia. It is merely magnified in Chechnya.” Personnel from police forces all over Russia serve time in Chechnya, and they bring back to their home towns the arbitrariness and impunity learned there. For example, the individuals who arrested Khodorkovsky stormed in wearing security service uniforms. It was later learned they were not security service employees, but ordinary police. Similarly, the recent sweep of the Open Society Institute premises in Moscow was reminiscent of security sweeps in Chechnya.
Sarah Mendelson of CSIS pointed out that aside from political parties, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is the least supported institution among the populace.
Ms. Lokshina stressed that Russian human rights organizations need support from the West. In many ways, it feels like Russia is going back to Soviet realities. The difference, though, is that instead of being treated like an enemy, Russia, despite abuses, is now being treated like a civilized state, which, she says, is dangerous.
When President Bush calls President Putin his friend, she said, it sends a clear message that the United States supports what is happening in Russia. America used to critique what is happening in Chechnya, for example. Russia, Lokshina contends, is becoming a threat to its own citizens and the world community at large. Uncritical Western support is counter to its own interests, she remarked.
Asked about reports of widespread public apathy in Russia, Dr. Mendelson said there is certainly a great deal of apathy, but there is a certain line over which the state cannot go. Ms. Lokshina added that some of the apathy has to do with lack of knowledge and heavy media control. For instance, it is frequently reported that Russians are not opposed to some level of censorship. In reality, though, this does not mean they do not want to know what is going on in Chechnya. What they want is to get rid of scams and con games (“chernukha”), i.e. “citizens would rather the government had control of the media than Boris Berezovsky.”
Ms. Greenwood raised the issue of the situation of the Meshketian Turks living in tenuous circumstances in southern Russia. She appreciated U.S. initiatives on the subject but urged more follow-through regarding the possibility of granting refugee status to Meskhetian Turks desirous of emigrating. Greenwood also noted that not only have Meskhetian Turks experienced discrimination and harassment in southern Russia, but NGOs working on their behalf are now under pressure from local authorities.
Ms. Greenwood asked that the United States maintain the pressure to prevent Russia from forcing internally displaced persons (IDPs) back into Chechnya. She said international pressure had succeeded in stopping Russia from overtly closing the remaining camps, but there remains subtle, psychological coercion.
In response to an inquiry about the state of freedom of thought within the academic community, Mendelson related several instances of FSB harassment of academics. “In Moscow,” she commented, “it simply feels like there is less oxygen. You cannot breathe.”
Ms. Lokshina contends that the situation in the provinces is even worse.
Asked about specific policy recommendations, Lokshina favored a strong statement from the United States against the anti-democratic trends and continued U.S. assistance programs for civil society and human rights in Russia. Mendelson added that the United States has made a strategic investment in Russian democracy and civil society, but this investment is under funded and it is too early to “graduate” Russia from such programs.
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 Jason Ekk contributed to this article.