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“Human Rights in Russia Are Headed Down the Wrong Road” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Chris Smith says

WASHINGTON – “Human rights in Russia are no longer at a crossroads but have been headed down the wrong road for several years,” said Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today at a Commission hearing “Whither Human Rights in Russia?”

Against the backdrop of the National Security hearing room and its symbols of U.S. military might, the Commission heard from witnesses about the deteriorating human rights situation that is affecting the average citizen due to increased corruption at every level of government, corrupt journalists who are in the pocket of the mafia-styled oligarches and political czars, pointed “ethnic cleansing” aimed at “blacks” (which in Russia means peoples from the Caucasus), religious repression from the Federal Security Bureau aimed at minority faiths, and ever-increasing anti-Semitism.

Witnesses included: Dr. Elena Bonner, chair of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation; Ludmilla Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Larry Uzzell, Moscow-based director of the Keston Institute; Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews; David Satter, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute; and Mark B. Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

“The decline in Russia’s recent economic fortunes has been accompanied by disturbing developments in the area of human rights and civil liberties,” said Smith. “Anti-Semitism in Russia—thought to have been exiled since the Soviet period to the pages of rabidly nationalistic newspapers—has moved into the more comfortable seats of the Russian Duma. Last October, at two public rallies, a Communist Party Member of the Duma, Albert Makasho, blamed ‘the Yids’ for Russia’s current problems.

In December, at Duma hearings, the chairman of the Defense Committee blamed President Yeltsin’s ‘Jewish entourage’ for alleged ‘genocide against the Russian people.’ In response to the public outcry, both in Russia and abroad, Communist Party chairman Zyuganov explained that the Party had nothing against ‘Jews,’ just ‘Zionism.’

Smith pointed out that “Russia has laws on the books, but they seem to work only when bureaucrats see legal justice in their own interest. The average citizen appears helpless before the arrogant bureaucracy, coupled with brutal crime and economic chaos.”

Dr. Bonner pointed out that the anti-Semitism may be virulent right now, but that it is not “in-bred.” Regarding U.S. financial support, Bonner recognized the allocation of the funds to various domestic projects, but pointed out that no one knows how the monies have actually been spent. “I cannot state whether the funds were stolen or not, that must be decided by the courts,” she said. Bonner also expressed support for linking human rights and civil liberties improvement to any future U.S. support for the Russian Government.

Ms. Alexeyeva believed that the comments from the leaders of the Communist Party were actually true reflections of the Party, not of the Russian people. She also felt that other self-respecting parliamentarians from other countries should not deal with the Duma until the anti-Semitic remarks are rebuked and the purveyors of anti-Semitism denounced by the government and the Duma. She felt it would be helpful if distinguished Members of Congress would lead the way by telling Yeltsin they would oppose support for Russia until appropriate steps are taken to quell anti-Semitism. “Russian human rights activists perceive that the contemporary major problem is not in the domain of political persecutions the way it used to be in the USSR, but instead in the phenomenon of legal nihilism of all the state officials, from the most powerful ones to the most insignificant ones,” she said.

David Satter’s conclusion was, “The new face of human rights abuses in Russia, in which the individual is deprived utterly of the protection of the law in the face of criminal business mafias, should be of deep concern to the United States. Fear for one’s physical security and the conviction that one is helpless to assure the safety of one’s family can only have a corrosive effect both morally and spiritually. When this condition is generalized to an entire population, it instills a distaste for democracy and a desire for authoritarian solutions which, in Russia, could have extremely violent consequences.”

Larry Uzzell described in some detail the plight of religious believers in the new Russia, and felt that “Russians don’t have significantly less religious freedom than they did one-and-a-half years ago, but less than they did five years ago.” He did feel that the ongoing transfer of power to the provinces “is a good thing” and that different provinces apply laws very differently, resulting in varying degrees of freedom throughout the country. He optimistically felt that while “in the short term Russia will have less freedom, in the long term it will be free.”

Naftalin and Levin discussed the current trends of anti-Semitism and how it manifests itself across Russia. They pointed out that there are both extremes, areas where there is little or no religious bigotry and other areas where there is extreme anti-Semitism—to the point of cemetery defacement and synagogue burning. But they both felt that the actions of a radical few were having a tremendous impact overall, that the public anti-Semitism was not shared by most common people.

Background: The Commission decided to hold this hearing because the decline in Russia’s economic fortunes in 1998 has been accompanied by disturbing developments in the areas of human rights and civil liberties. A religion law adopted in 1997 has led to legal difficulties with local authorities for some religious organizations. After seven indictments, environmental activist Alexandr Nikitin is still being confined to St. Petersburg having been neither acquitted nor convicted at an October 1998 trial for allegedly revealing state secrets.

Nikitin has been listed by Amnesty International as Russia’s first political prisoner. Communist Party members of the Russian Duma have blamed “Yids” for Russia’s economic travails and Jewish members of Yeltsin’s entourage for “genocide” against the Russian people. In November, one of the most prominent liberal Duma members, Galina Staravoitova, was murdered in St. Petersburg.

Ironically, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared 1998 “The Year of Human Rights” in Russia in honor of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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