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World Policy Institute - Putin's Russia: The Human Rights Record Transcript

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The Post-Transitional Russian Identity


Putin's Russia: The Human Rights Record
Thursday, March 10, 2005, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Swayduck Auditorium, New School University, New York City
Discussion Transcript

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I have four people that I have invited to discuss Putin's record on human rights. They are very experienced and very equipped to discuss these issues.

Our first panelist is Mary Holland. She will talk about legal and civil rights. She comes to us from NYU School of Law.

I also invited Diederik Lohman from Human Rights Watch to talk about military issues and human rights and the Chechyan conflict.

Andrew Nagorski, Senior Editor of Newsweek used to be the Newsweek Moscow correspondent. Newsweek very bravely started a Russian edition of Newsweek. In fact, I have a few copies here courtesy of Andrew and he will talk about what it is to be in the belly of the beast at this particular moment for a foreign publication in Russia today.

And finally, last but not least, our final speaker is Alexander Lupis from the Committee to Protect Journalists and he will talk about human rights and the press in sort of a broader context. It was a very wonderful thing, in fact Alexander Lupis was suggested by his director for this panel which was really wonderful because usually you have to chase after people to participate on a panel but in this particular case because it is such a pressing subject actually people wanted to be on the panel so I welcome Alexander.

MARY HOLLAND: Nina, thank you very much. I first would like to tell you a little bit about myself so that you have some perspective of where I'm coming from. I had the opportunity as a child in the early 70's to live in the Soviet Union and I attended a Soviet public school in Moscow. I found the country very intriguing. I learned the language and I went back to live in the Soviet Union in college in the 1980's and in the early 90's worked for a human rights organization and in the mid-90's worked in a private law firm in Russia. So, relatively speaking I am going to take a longish view of Putin's human rights record. I'm now at NYU Law School and a month ago we hosted a conference on Russia including some of the leading human rights activists from Russia today. Many of my remarks are in fact drawn from their remarks just a few weeks ago.

So what is Putin's record, what is his human rights record, particularly from a legal standpoint? It's a bad record and more importantly it's a worsening record. But I want to look for just a moment at the pre-Putin record because I think that the Soviet human rights record is a very important point of reference and it's his point of reference. Putin is a proud descendent of the unreformed Soviet KGB. So this is his point of reference.

The Soviet Union was a one party state. There was some law on administrative matters. It was not a country of no law but there was no law on political matters. There were gross denials of civil and political rights. There was state repression of 20 million people in the 20's. There was abuse of the criminal system. There was abuse of the psychiatric system. There was no free market. There were no free professions. There was overwhelming, dominant control by the state. But, importantly there were some real provisions of social and economic rights. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was our bogeyman of choice of the United States but there were some things that the USSR did relatively well or comparatively well including an education system that in some ways worked and a medical system and transportation system many of which are things that don't work today and are causes of grave concern to normal folks.

So what was the situation like then when we "won" the 'Cold War in the early 90's. Well, in many respects the conception about human rights 15 years ago was right. A good constitution was put in place. There was a reasonably thorough going reform of the criminal codes, of family codes of commercial codes so that there could be economic activity. There was the creation of a real parliament. There was concern about a real free, independent judiciary. There was the opportunity for a free press to exercise itself.

But one very important thing that did not happen in the early to mid-90's was that there was no thorough going accounting for the past. There was no tribunal to hear crimes that occurred against humanity in the Stalinist era. There was no opening of all the records on the KGB as there had been in opening the records on the Stasi in East Germany. There was no illustration into who was a KGB informer among government officials. There was a lot of Glasnost about the past. There was a lot of openness. There was a lot of discussion but there was not accountability.

Now, that was a strategic choice. Politics is the art of the possible. I am not trying to suggest that people who were at the forefront of human rights made wrong choices. But the choices are noteworthy and I think that some of their legacy is what we see today in human rights. In addition to that lack of accountability and in addition to this lack of 70 years of history of a tradition of human rights, we see in the early 90's incredibly weak institutions. Incredibly weak ways to transform a reasonably good conception of human rights into an actuality of human rights. We thought no real history of an independent parliament, no real civil society sector, no vibrant religious institutions nothing really since the 20's of a burgeoning civil society.

So Putin is a KGB agent. He is a proud descendent of the KGB. He is not now, nor has he ever been, nor is he ever likely to be in the future a human rightsnik. And it is very important to remember that he came to power after the explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999. He came to power on a war against terror. That was his platform. That's how he got where he was and that's in large part how he remains in power now and holds on to his power.

Since he has come to power in 2000, Russia has been a country at war. It's been open war at times, it's been a dirty war at times as it is today but it's been a war for 10 years and it is a war that's characterized as a war on terror. I think when we think for even just a moment of the extraordinary challenges in this country that the war on terror poses for human rights. That it poses for interrogation, for torture for incarceration of people and when we think of that challenge in a country like Russia with no real history of institutions to protect human rights and we think of a war on a massive scale that's been going on for 10 years and we think of the deep Soviet tradition of talking about mobilizing a country for war, I think we recognize the incredible challenge that human rights faces in Russia today.

So, what are the legal challenges? Certainly there are legal challenges and I think some of my colleagues will come back to address these. One of the most profound changes that has recently occurred was in the aftermath of the horrendous massacre of children in Beslan in the fall of 2004. Putin's apparent solution to that terrorist attack was to change it so that regional governors would no longer be elected. They would be nominated by him. Similarly he changed the way in which lower house Duma representatives would be elected. They would no longer be half elected from local party lists, they would only be from national lists.

Those are two profound changes. Think for a minute what it would be like if suddenly overnight all 50 governors of 50 states would be appointed rather than elected. That would be an enormous change. And yet, coming from a Soviet past the idea of a one party state is very ingrained and even without these changes there has been an extraordinary progression over the last 10 years toward a one party state. Putin's party.

Listening to our Russian colleagues a month ago, the real challenge in law and human rights is not so much about today, the law on paper but it's about law in practice. It's about enforcement or rather often it's about non-enforcement or it's about abuse of practice. It's about the perversion and the prostitution of criminal law for political ends. The Constitution is not bad. It's just not very meaningful today. And even very important safeguards that are new and that have been put in place since the fall of the Soviet Union are not functioning as they should. And one of the most tragic safeguards to me in the way that it is working in practice is that now petitioners for human rights claims do have an opportunity to take their claim to the European Court of Human Rights. Russia is a part of the Council of Europe. They have a right to bring those claims to Strasbourg and yet the Russian Government with impunity has assassinated many petitioners and their families who are bringing claims to the European Court of Human Rights. So atrocious, utterly atrocious and in connection with Chechyna and the war on terror.

Another very distressing dimension of the war on terror is that since Beslan in particular, President Putin has directly taken aim at human rights defenders. He has directly taken aim at human rights advocates and has talked openly about the country being a nation under siege and the notion that dissidents are traitors. The power of fear is great. The fear is increasing. There are now political prisoners in Russia on a Soviet scale. Not so much in Moscow and St. Petersburg but out in the provinces, in the regions. In Moscow we see the development of new show trials. Trials that are used for political ends to make important social points.

Two of those trials, both of which are being handled by a very prominent Russian defense attorney, Yuri Schmidt, who was here in February , one is of Yuri Samodurov the Director of the Sakarov Museum and another Mikhail Khodorkovsky an important businessman. The Samadorov trial involves a case of alleged blasphemy and I have here a case where now the prosecutor has asked for 3 years imprisonment for this curator of a Moscow exhibit that had an exhibit about religion and its role. And I have here information about that case and a petition in the event that you'd like to sign that really somebody should not be subjected to 3 years in prison for their expression of artistic belief. And that is largely a show trial that is being brought for political reasons. It's to make a lesson of the Sakarov Foundation and it's role in supporting liberal causes and in particular for drawing attention to the abuses of the war on terror.

Similarly the Khodorkovsky trial has been fraught with procedural violations and violations of due process. Khodorkovsky as a prominent business person did give a lot of money to civil society in Russia and did take on political causes and certainly his trial is being made a lesson to others in the business community and anywhere else that no one, including Russia's richest man is above the state and is above the state bureaucrats that run it.

One of the things that was striking in listening to our Russian human rights colleagues how much harder their life is today in the sense that the West is not very interested and I think we can see two dimensions to that. One is that the Cold War is over and the West gets no brownie points today for showing how bad things are in Russia unlike in the Soviet Union where their was an ideological divide. Human Rights activists in Russia don't get to the front page of the New York Times anymore as they did.

Russia is very low on the United States agenda in a geo-political sense. People characterized it at this meeting as being number 5 on the agenda. What the Bush Administration really wants is for nothing to happen in Russia for the next 4 years for it to be frozen and that we focus on national security and put terrorism first but that puts people in Russia at great risk.

The other thing that hinders a greater participation by the United States and Western Europe is our own pre-occupation with terror and the notion that somehow Russia and the West are in a strategic partnership in the war on terror. Completely overlooking the way in which the war on terrorism is manipulated to violate basic human rights.

There is unrest in Russia today, not all is well. People are not sanguine. Other countries, Georgia, Ukraine, have undergone popular revolutions, if you will, in very recent memory against repressive governments that are outgrowths of the Soviet Union. That doesn't seem imminent today but the danger of unrest is very real and the situation is bad and worsening.

DIEDERIK LOHMAN: My name is Diederik Lohman and I have been working in the field of human rights for the last 10 years. The last 8 years of which I have been with Human Rights Watch including about 5-1/2 years in our Moscow office.

To start with Mary, it was very interesting that you talked about accountability and the fact that there was no accounting for what happened in the past. Because in all the years that I have worked on Russia for every single topic I have touched be it police torture, be it abuses in the Army, be it the situation in orphanages, be it the media or be it Chechnya as we will see in a little bit, every time accountability is being the key obstacle to improvement of the human rights situation. Russia does not have a culture of holding people accountable for their actions, particularly state officials.

So the panelists were asked to answer basically two questions. One, does President Vladimir Putin's centralization of power present a serious step back for human rights in Russia and is Democracy being undermined and civil discourse being silenced. I think the answer to both can be a wholehearted yes. In Russia today political freedoms have been severely restricted and democracy I think I can say is essentially dead.

The consequences of Putin's centralization go well beyond that. They've, in fact, had a major impact on the soundness of decision making in the government as a whole. And in turn poor decision making has had a major impact on the human rights situation in Russia. I'll later on try to illustrate that using the example of Chechnya, I said that the centralization has led to poor decision making in the Russian Government. Paradoxically, the whole centralization effort was characterized by Putin as necessary to make the government more effective.

Let's remember Russia before Putin in the Yeltsin years. Mary talked about very week institutions. The words that come to my mind first and foremost are chaos, inefficient and ineffective government, rule of men, not law, no accountability. A country that consists of 89 semi-independent fiefdoms. So, if you look at the situation under Yeltsin you could easily argue that Putin had legitimate arguments to centralize the state to some extent to create functioning state structures, to bring the various different regions back in line. Imagine if the 50 states of this country each adopted laws that were grossly inconsistent with the US Constitution. That's the situation that we had in Russia under Yeltsin.

There was a clear need to develop coherent policies towards the oligarchs, towards robber capitalism. There was obviously a real need to enforce rule of law and to create mechanisms of accountability. So, if centralization was necessary to achieve that, I think I personally would have applauded that kind of an effort. The problem is that Putin's centralization was not about creating an effective state. It was about concentrating power in his hands. It was not about creating mechanisms for accountability. It was about eliminating the checks and balances that existed to his power. Because however flawed and inefficient the system was under President Yeltsin in those years there were checks and balances. I'll walk you through a few of them.

The media. Although in Yeltsin's years the media were by no means independent, they were pluralistic. The various different television stations represented or reflected the opinions of their owners and the opinions of the owners were constantly in conflict. So by flipping channels Russians were actually able to get a whole range of different opinions. The same was true for newspapers. Today television has become incredibly monotone. There is no criticism of the President and basically people have reverted back to reading between the lines. The newspapers and internet are still a little bit more free to write what they want but their readership is marginal.

The parliament. Under Yeltsin it was completely ineffective and it was not constructive at all but the one aspect of Parliament that was crucial for a democracy was that there was vigorous debate on every single policy issue that the government wanted to make law. Today Parliament is a rubber stamp machine for the Kremlin's proposals.

The Governors. They may have been dictators in their own little fiefdoms, but they did provide a counterbalance to a very powerful President. Today as Mary already said, Governors are appointed. They are not all appointed yet but in a few years they will all have been appointed by Putin and therefore accountable to Putin only.

The Judiciary. Although still far from real independence in the Yeltsin years, it was making progress. Today telephone justice, the FSB picking up the phone and telling the judge what verdict to issue in a specific case is making a comeback.

The NGOS. Mary has already talked about the difficulties of the NGOS working in Russia today. Until last year the NGOS were fairly free to operate as they wanted and they developed quite rapidly into quite a vocal and important voice on human rights issues. Today they are under sustained pressure from the authorities.

So all of these checks and balances have either already been dismantled or are in the process of being dismantled. That dismantling of these checks and balances entails violation of the right to free press, the right to free association, the right to elect and be elected. But as I said before it goes well beyond that and I wanted to take Chechnya as an example to talk you through some of the consequences that this lack of public debate and lack of accountability has in practice.

From the first day of the second war in Chechnya which started in September of 1999, the government of Russia has tried everything it could to limit flows of information about what was happening in that war. It also did everything it could to stifle public debate about the war