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Helsinki Commission Examines Current State of Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

By John Finerty
Staff Advisor

With the situation in Russia continuing to be uncertain, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the U.S. Helsinki Commission, convened a briefing on June 23, 2005 to update Members of Congress, press and staff on ongoing developments in the area of human rights.  The focus of the briefing was on analysis by Mr. Valentin Gefter, General Director of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Gefter presented balanced but critical testimony on the current state of human rights and politics in Russia, stressing that Russia was moving, albeit “slowly and controversially,” toward political normality and stability.  He described in detail what he termed a “new rise of authoritarian trends” in Russia, citing the increasing role of political institutions and security institutions in the country.  Mr. Gefter noted that there has been increased state persecution against “socially active” groups and individuals, noting that the scope and methods employed by Russian authorities were “not fair, obviously selective…and directed against those who are not liked by the authorities or just individual officials.”

Specifically, Gefter focused on the resurgent trend of imprisoning citizens for political reasons, which he deemed the “most dangerous manifestations of the overall atmosphere” in Russia. “The authorities call them enemies of the state,” he remarked, “but we call them victims of the regime.”

In his comments, Gefter focused on four individuals whom he considers political prisoners:

  • Valentin Danilov and Igor Sutyagin, academics who were accused of espionage, and;
  • Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two businessmen convicted of various charges.

Gefter argued that Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were had being made scapegoats by the Russian government for everyone who was involved in the development of capitalism in Russia.

Against this backdrop, Gefter suggested that foreign officials seeking to influence human rights developments in Russia should place an emphasis on the resolution of these and other individual cases rather than trying to push sweeping systemic reforms.

One ray of light on the relatively dark political landscape, Gefter noted, is the fact that there has not been mass criminal prosecutions reminiscent of the Red Terror at the height of the Soviet era. However, while significant changes to the social, political and legal situation in the post-Soviet era have taken place, Gefter said, the methods and mentality of Russian law enforcement agencies have remained generally the same. The result of this lack of change within Russian security agencies, Gefter asserted, has led to many instances of political, corporate, and even personal influence prevailing over the rule of law.

With respect to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, Gefter, who works closely with the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, suggested that regions neighboring the war torn republic are most directly affected by the war, and that the consequences of the war for the rest of Russia is comparatively limited.  In this connection, Gefter also mentioned a rise in discrimination faced by Chechens and other ethnic minorities from the Caucasus.  Gefter expressed particular concern over what he termed “state violence” perpetrated by the police and security services.

In a broader context, Gefter expressed doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin had the necessary time and public support to accomplish whatever economic and social reforms he had originally planned.

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.

PARTICIPATING COMMISSIONERS

  • Moderator: Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
  • Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL)
  • Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY)

WITNESSES

  • Mr. Valentin Gefter, General Director of the Mocow-based Human Rights Institute, co-editor of the Russian Human Rights Bulletin and editor of the human rights journal Russian Messenger and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Kennan Institute
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