My new column on human rights organizations
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.