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Helsinki Commission Briefing Sheds Light on Russia's Human Rights Situation
Wednesday, June 30, 2004

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.

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We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

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