Archive for June 2008
I have just returned home from Helsinki where I had participated in the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum. It was a great opportunity to meet new colleagues and discuss problems of Russian democracy. I met Robert Amsterdam, who is well-known as a Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s attorney and an owner of the brilliant Web site, dedicated to Russia. Yesterday they published my new column with criticism of international human rights organizations. Unfrotunately, much of this criticism is also true of Russian human rights NGOs.
Wish We Had Your Problems!
June 10, 2008
There seems to be a tradition that whenever a foreign human rights organization publishes a report on Russia, Kremlin-backed politicians call it groundless and based on double standards. So, unsurprisingly, the Amnesty International World Report 2008 got cool welcome. For example, a member of Putin’s Civil Chamber, Anatoly Kucherena, immediately condemned the “wholesale criticism” and “ideological implications” of the report. However, if the “official” human rights activist had taken the time to read the report or, even better, to attend its presentation in Moscow, he wouldn’t be so upset.
Amnesty International presented their report in Moscow on May 28 along with their memorandum to Dmitry Medvedev. The press conference began with a statement that there was a positive change in the situation with human rights in Russia in recent years. This is something completely opposite to my observations that the country is drowning slowly into dictatorship, with new barbaric laws and new political prisoners appearing every month. Even the situation in Belarus under the infamous Alexander Lukashenko – “Europe’s last dictator” – sometimes seems more optimistic than in Putin’s Russia.
Two thirds of the press conference was dedicated to human rights abuses… in the USA and the European Union. From tortures in Guantanamo to school segregation for the Roma people in Slovakia—it seems that everywhere in the West you will face violence, injustice and suffering. At the same time, there was hardly any mention, for example, of the dozens of National Bolsheviks serving their terms in Russian prisons for nonviolent protest, or of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his colleagues being put in jail for not toeing the Putin’s line.
The conclusion that Amnesty’s speaker made out of this was paradoxical but it fit the picture well: European and American politicians don’t have the moral right to demand that other countries respect human rights as long as there are serious problems in the West itself. Otherwise, they are clearly conducting a policy of “double standards”.
Don’t get me wrong, I really hope that tortures in Guantanamo are stopped and schools in Slovakia desegregated. Pointing at such problems is very important as it lets the West remain a beacon of human rights in the world. But who can explain to me the point of telling all this to journalists in Russia? In Russia, where freedom of expression is technically abolished; where elections are forged; where police beats, arrests or even shoots at peaceful demonstrators; where dozens of opposition activists, businesspeople and scientists are in prison for political reasons; where dozens of others disappear without a trace every year in Chechnya and Ingushetia; where hundreds of soldiers commit suicide unable to bear dedovschina [violent hazing of recruits]? In Russian, one would say: wish we had your problems!
Of course, Amnesty International intended to appear objective and independent of the Western governments. They hoped that if they criticized Washington and Brussels, the Russian authorities wouldn’t accuse them of being “American agents of influence”. They believed that praising the Kremlin’s policy would make them more trustworthy in Medvedev’s eyes. Maybe this would be the case with some other government, but not with this one. Comments like that of Mr Kucherena were the only reaction from the Russian political establishment. I doubt that Amnesty will even get any response from the Presidential Administration, not to mention any real improvement of the human rights situation.
However, some people in Russia will surely make use of this press conference. It doesn’t take an expert to tell how the Kremlin’s propaganda will love such statements about the West’s “moral rights” and “double standards”. By the way, the day after that presentation, Vladimir Putin said in Paris: “All this talk about human rights is often used as an instrument of pressure on Russia, with the aim of achieving some goals that have nothing to do with human rights in Russia… Problems with human rights you have in any country”. Is he quoting Amnesty International or vice versa? Unintentionally, the Western human rights activists gave the Russian authorities an excuse for mass human rights abuses and weakened the not-so-strong attempts of the West to influence the Kremlin’s domestic policy.
P.S.: To be honest, Amnesty’s report does mention a lot of real and serious problems with human rights in Russia. Unexpectedly to me, they even recognized me as a prisoner of conscience for having served a 13-day term in jail for attempting to participate in a Dissenters’ March. However, this was done too late—a week after my release. Amnesty’s officer apologized and explained to me that they have too little staff in Russia and too much work.
I’ve successfully defended my master’s thesis in Political Science at Higher School of Economics, received an A+ and been recommended for the PhD program. My thesis was entitled “Nonviolent Democratic Revolutions in Eastern Europe” and focused on Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
Now that the academic work is completed, I’m heading off to Finland to participate in the following conference:
FINROSFORUM 2008 | Helsinki 9-10 June 2008
The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (www.finrosforum.fi) will organise a seminar, FINROSFORUM 2008, in the fortress of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) in Helsinki on 9-10 June 2008. The conference venue is the Tenaille von Fersen. This is the second annual seminar of its kind. The participants at this year’s event include several members of the human rights and democracy movement in as well as Russian experts from Finland, Estonia, and elsewhere. The themes of the seminar include the economic costs of an authoritarian regime, the in Russia, the conflict in North Caucasus, the refugee problem in Russia, ethnic relations and nationalism, as well as censorship and self-censorship. A detailed programme, together with short speaker biographies, is available at http://www.finrosforum.fi/?p=90. The programme is available in Finnish, Russian, and Swedish at http://www.finrosforum.fi. The main languages at the seminar will be Finnish and Russian. Translation will be provided. The seminar is open to the public. Participation is free of charge, but we will charge the cost price for meals.
Finnish-Russian Civic Forum
+358 50 511 3129
Finnish-Russian Civic Forum
+358 40 720 5985
Finnish-Russian Civic Forum
+358 44 070 7710
The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum was established in January 2007 by a group of people concerned about the erosion of democracy and human rights in Russia. The organisation strives to promote cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, andin Russia.
If you are in Finland, stop by and meet me!
Here is my latest publication, a column for the leading Russian website Yezhedevny Zhurnal. It’s the first time that institution has published my writing, and the expert translator David Essel, who translated Boris Nemtsov’s review of the Putin years, has kindly agreed to translate it for me into English.
The Dissenters March: a Postscriptum
June 5, 2008
It has to be admitted: the March of the Dissenters on 6 May was a failure, first and foremost because of us, the organisers. The organising committee got together once or twice and never decided anything much. After that, matters were left to take their own course and the individual member groups each did its own thing. Disastrously little money – to all intents and purposes none whatsoever – was spent on the march’s needs. Handmade National Bolshevik stickers and a few Oborona graffiti weren’t going to make a mark, and the issue of the United Citizens Front (OGF) newspaper didn’t come out in time for 6 May.
Furthermore, no attempt was even made to involve other organisations, as was done previously, in the preparations for the event. The prize in the disorganisation stakes has to go to the appearance at Chistye Prudy of Denis Bilunov to announce that the event had been cancelled at the very time that activists from Oborona, Smena, the OGF, the National Democratic Union of Youth (NDSM) and the National Bolsheviks were trying to break through to the march. Bilunov did of course try to save the situation but the end result was basically an admission that we had failed. One of the really special things about the Dissenter’s March was that it was going to take place no matter what, regardless of pressure from the authorities. When its organisers voluntarily cancelled it, that could only be taken as an admission of defeat.
The failure of the 6 May event was in some ways a foregone conclusion. We lost interest and drive; the enthusiasm that existed during the preparations for previous events was not there. As a result, after the well-known spring demonstrations of 2007, the number of events we held went down and down while interest in them dropped as well. The early Dissenter Marches were some of the most outstanding and most discussed political events in the country. As time has passed, however, they have become more routine sorts of events, almost like May Day Communist demonstrations. Worst of all, new people have stopped joining in.
I am sorry to say this but I think that this demo-march format has lost its relevance. Each demo is going to be weaker than the preceding one until the very concept of “Dissenters’ March” becomes totally discredited. To hold them purely for the sake of getting a few fresh photos of OMON cops arresting participants is fairly pointless: there are years’ worth of such photographs on the internet already. The cops too are getting better at dealing with our demos. What we need to do now is something different – and that is to get as many people as possible involved in resistance against the authorities, help then get over their concerns and fears about doing so, and teach them how to peacefully defend themselves on the streets.
For example, we could set ourselves the task of holding the largest mass meeting of recent years this autumn, perhaps in the form of a concert or festival. It does not matter much where it would be held – even Tishino will do so long as it is possible to get together somewhere. An event of this kind will need serious resources and take months of time and effort to organise. However, if we make a success of it, it will be far more useful and important than three hurriedly organised Dissenters’ Marches of a few hundred people in each. An event of this kind could be arranged under the banner of The Otherand perhaps even be the first ever event in support of the National Assembly. The main things is that we need to attract new people – people who did not previously join opposition demos – and show that we can do more than just present our backs to the police so that they can beat them with truncheons.
As reported on Oborona‘s website, on May 31, Oborona activists took part in a demonstration in support of political prisoners, timed to the third anniversary of the sentencing of ex-Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I’m shown above speaking to reporters at the event. The banner reads: “FREEDOM FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS!”
It was attended by about one hundred people — twice the limit of the permit. Police threatened to arrest all those in excess of the allowed number of 50 participants. We notified the police that this is not a proper basis for arrest as there is no such provision in the criminal code. They maintained the threat but took no action.
Joining in the demonstration were the leader of the movement “For Human Rights” Lev Ponomarev and journalist and poet Marietta Chudakova. Various opposition groups joined Oborona in calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners.
The organizers believe the sentencing of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev constitutes a “link in the chain of attacks on Russian freedom, democracy, and on the principle of independent justice.” The participants expressed support for “all who are persecuted because of their beliefs, and for the right to be a free people in a free country.”