Archive for February 2010
I met with President Barack Obama today as a part of the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit. The meeting was attended by about 20 more human rights activists from different countries as well as by the leadership of the National Security Council (James Jones and senior advisors to the President).
Mr Obama said that he had started his own career as an organizer in poor communities and so he believes that the best change always comes from below. He outlined his view of the US policy in regard of promotion of human rights. He mentioned three points about it:
- US government tries to follow their words and values in their domestic policy including the end of torture, closing Guantanamo base etc.
- US government tries to engage not only with the governments but also with civil societies. When American officials visit other counties, especially the ones with authoritarian governments, they always meet human rights activists, and so do their diplomats;
- they understand human rights more broadly than only freedom of speech, freedom of religious expression, freedom of assembly, free and fair elections, and rule of law. They also include economical rights in their scope because if you are starving, you are unprotected.
What I liked about Obama’s way of speaking is his honesty and absolute lack of demagogy. He bluntly stated that human rights is not the only issue that he has to take into account. Security and trade are also important and he can’t help but try to engage the governments in order to achieve result in these spheres. “We make mistakes and we will never achieve the perfect ideal,” he admitted. But he added that the US government needs criticism from human rights defenders so that they get closer that ideal.
Of course, you shouldn’t expect too much practical result from such meetings. You can’t convey much to the President in 20 to 30 minutes. But the very fact of this meeting bears a message that the US government pays attention to the issues of human rights in the world. How their words correspond to their deeds is something that we still have to see.
The Russian democratic movement is not merely a political phenomenon. Its values and aspirations are expressed in culture, most importantly, the music. Like I promised at Principia College, I’ll post several pieces on the music that inspires me and other Russian activists.
Dissenters’ music first appeared in the Soviet Union. Names of Alexander Galich, Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava, so-called “bards,” were known to many Russians even in 1960s. However, the real boom of protest culture took place in late 1980s during the Perestroika. Rock music emerged from underground, openly and bluntly criticizing the stagnation and repressions in the country. Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine) and DDT were some of the most prominent bands of those days.
Some rock idols of Perestroika era still perform, but gave up their rebel sentiment. Andrei Makarevich (leader of Mashina Vremeni) and Boris Grebenschikov (leader of Aquarium) have been regularly meeting Vladimir Putin; Alisa band has performed at Nashi’s concerts. Some others have deceased like Viktor Tsoi (leader of Kino band) or Igor Talkov.
Kino was, arguably, the most famous Russian rock band of all times. Their songs performed by Viktor Tsoi remain popular even now, 20 years after Tsoi was killed in a car accident (some teenage Kino fans still write “Tsoi is alive” at Russian towns’ walls). Solidarnost made one of Kino’s masterpieces, “Перемен!” (Changes!), their anthem:
Перемен! / Changes!
(English lyrics based on Mavra‘s translation)
Instead of warmth, there’s only green glass,
Instead of fire, smoke.
Another day is crossed out on the calendar grid.
The red shining sun has completely burned out,
And this day goes out with it,
And over a glowing city, the shadow will fall.
We want changes!
It’s the demand of our hearts.
We want changes!
It’s the demand of our eyes.
In our laughter, in our tears and the pulse in our veins.
Changes! We want changes!
Electric light continues our day,
And the box of matches is empty,
But in the kitchen, like a blue flower, gas burns.
Cigarettes in our hands, tea on the table,
So this scheme is simple,
And there’s nothing more left, it’s all up to us.
We cannot brag about the wisdom in our eyes
Or skillful gestures of our hands.
We don’t need this all to understand each other.
Cigarettes in our hands, tea on the table,
That’s how the circle is filled,
And suddenly we get scared to change something.
Oborona has also used one of Kino’s songs, “Попробуй спеть вместе со мной” (Try To Sing Along), for a clip about their latest summer camp (with English subtitles):
To be continued…
No matter what Russian government says, the people are more and more willing to protest. Two weeks after the huge demonstration in Kaliningrad and another violent dispersing of a peaceful rally in Moscow, more cities join the protest wave.
Despite -15 C (5 F) temperature, about 2000 citizens of Irkutsk participated in a public meeting today to defend Baikal lake, the world largest reserve of freshwater. The protest was caused by a recent decree by Vladimir Putin that allowed a local papermaking factory, reportedly owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to pour waste into the lake. One of the leaders of Solidarnost Vladimir Milov took part in the rally as well as environmentalists, NGO leaders and the head of Yabloko Sergei Mitrokhin. Along with environmentalist slogans, the protesters chanted “Down with Putin’s government!” and “Shame on United Russia!”
United Russia together with the factory’s owners tried to hold their own demonstration in support of the Putin’s decree simultaniously but only managed to bring several hundred participants.
In Samara, 1200 people demanded resignation of their regional governor Vladimir Artyakov. The demonstration was organized by local trade unions. Many protesters from other cities couldn’t make it to Samara because their coaches were stopped by the traffic police; this is a usual preventive measure against the opposition. The rally was held in spite of this, without serious incidents. The region experiences huge problems because the VAZ car factory, its largest enterprise, is close to bankrupcy. Artyakov, who was connected to VAZ, is accused by the people of being unable to cope with the situation. The protesters also demanded direct elections of governors and resignation of Vladimir Putin’s government (Artyakov was appointed by Putin in 2007).
I spent last week in the USA. I was invited by Principia College in Illinois to participate in their Lucha Noerager Vogel Program on Moral Courage. I had a speech there devoted to my experience of nonviolently opposing authoritarianism in Russia, and I also mentioned the experience of Belarus and Ukraine. Apart from that, I met with a lot of student at classes and gave an interview for the college’s Internet radio (downloadable here). The guys there are very thoughtful and polite; their interests and questions were very different from political science students who I used to talk to.
Before coming to Illinois, I spent a few days in Washington, DC. I attended a brilliant panel on rule of law in Russia organized by Cato Institute. Karinna Moskalenko and Robert Amsterdam, both prominent international lawyers and both very active in their defense of Russian citizens from political repression (e.g. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a client of both of them), as well as Andrei Illarionov, one of the Russia’s most respected economists, discussed prospects for Russian democracy as well as US-Russia relations. This discussion’s video posted by Bob Amsterdam is highly recommended.
I also had a panel of my own at American Enterprise Institute. I was talking about the numerous problems with freedom of assembly in Russia, from vague legislation to police brutality to violent assaults on protests. I am also going to talk about this issue next week at the Washington Human Rights Summit.
My way back from Principia to Moscow was troubled by the Washington snowfall. Although I was staying in St Louis, i.e. quite far from DC, my flight had to stop at Dulles Airport and was cancelled. After waiting in the town for three days, I had to rebook my tickets and go via Chicago and Zurich. But thanks to that delay, I managed to meet Craig Pirrong a.k.a. Streetwise Professor, a Houston professor of Economics and the author of a great blog on Russia’s economy. He has already posted an entry about our meeting.
PS: I was surprised to know how many participants of the AEI discussion (many of them, too, were students) and not just them read my blog (hi!).
Last weekend in Russia was really hot. 7,000 to 12,000 people participated in a protest in Kaliningrad on January 30. The rally oranized by Solidarnost was supported even by relatively loyal KPRF, Yabloko, LDPR and many civic groups. The action was dedicated to raising of transport tax and communal tariffs by the regional government but soon became a political event when participants demanded resignation of Vladimir Putin’s government. It was the largest protest in recent years.
The other day, Moscow and St Petersburg were protesting. Despite the smaller figures of participants, the actions were just as dramatic. About 700 Moscow citizens came to Triumfalnaya Square to demand freedom of assembly knowing that the police will be beating and arresting people. They were right: about 150 participants of the peacceful protest were arrested including Boris Nemtsov and winner of 2009 Andrei Sakharov Prize Oleg Orlov. Dozens were arrested in St Petersburg. Organizers plan next action for March 31 and claim that they won’t give up until the government begins to respect the right of association.
A few hours before, opposition activists were attacked at a Moscow metro station by mobsters armed with sticks. Several young people were injured but in the end they managed to hold a surprise march in the city center. About 100 people walked down Sadovoe Ring with opposition slogans and disappeared minutes before police showed up.