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Russia: Bleak year for human rights activists coming to a close

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 21 December 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Russia: Bleak year for human rights activists coming to a close, 21 December 2009, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
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Masha Charnay: 12/21/09

A EurasiaNet Commentary by Masha Charnay

In Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Russia, human rights activists are the new dissidents.

The recent experiences of Oleg Orlov – chairman of Memorial, a Russian rights organization – helps illustrate the difficult environment in which rights activists operate in Russia today. On December 16, Orlov, acting on behalf of Memorial, accepted a leading human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, given by the European Parliament. At home, however, the group's work appears to be increasingly despised by the government.

Speaking to EurasiaNet, Orlov asserted that his organization experiences constant pressure from authorities. "In 2007 I was abducted ... in the North Caucasus. I was threatened and beaten," Orlov says. "Currently, there's a criminal case against me." Orlov is convinced that people with ties to security services carried out the 2007 abduction, although no one was ever arrested in connection with the crime. However, recently Orlov lost a libel suit against Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. The lawsuit stemmed from Orlov's public statement in which he placed responsibility for the July murder of Natalia Estemirova, a journalist an Orlov's colleague at the center, on Kadyrov's regime.

Self-evident occupational hazards are not daunting Russian activists, said Friederike Behr, a researcher for Amnesty International in Moscow. "There is work that has to be done. None of the organizations that Amnesty International collaborates with here in Russia have ever cowered in the face of difficulties," Behr said.

This year saw several high-profile activists gunned down, including Estemirova and Stanislav Markelov, a prominent lawyer and rights activist who was murdered last January.

Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned the failure of Russian authorities to investigate various criminal acts committed against rights workers. In July, the group published a detailed report on human rights abuses in the republics of the North Caucasus. In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the findings as biased, claiming that it was primarily designed to undermine Russia's international reputation.

These days, human rights organizations that question Russia's domestic policies are routinely accused of carrying out anti-Russian activities. A significant share of the Russian public willingly embraces the notion that human rights groups in Russia are financed by foreign donors to sully the Kremlin's international image. In a recent poll conducted by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, for example, 15 per cent of respondents agreed that organizations like Memorial are harmful to Russia.

Svetlana Gannushkina, the director of Citizen's Aid, a foundation that assists refugees and internally displaced persons, says the government is fanning hostility toward rights activists. She quickly parries the claims that local human rights groups cater to the wishes of their donors. "There is no one here in Russia who wants to finance us," Gannushkina stressed. "And if we ever receive contributions from Russian donors they are usually made anonymously because people are afraid to be judged. They are afraid to be associated with us."

Gannushkina's name, date of birth and address once made it to a list of "enemies of the Russian people" published on a website of an ultra-nationalist organization.

It remains difficult for activists to predict what the future holds. Orlov, representing perhaps a minority view, remains an optimist. "I hope for future changes," is his laconic response when asked for a prediction on Russia's rights climate in the coming years.

Others, like Gannushkina, are skeptical that changes will come any time soon. "It is terribly difficult and feels like trying to break through a wall using your head," she said.

The government hasn't provided much reason for hope over the past decade. Since Putin became president on the last day of 1999, the Kremlin has adopted a covertly antagonistic stance toward rights activists. During Putin's first term, he oversaw the adoption of administrative rules that hampered the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate. Toward the end of his tenure, however, he founded the Presidential Commission for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. The entity was purportedly intended to foster a dialogue between the government and the human rights workers, but it produced no practical changes in the country's rights climate.

"At first, it was unclear whether [Putin] wanted to get to know who we were in order to start collaborating with us, or simply figure out how we work, and crack down on us," says Ludmila Alekseeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia. "Unfortunately, the latter turned out to be the case."

When Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, became president, some activists entertained hopes for liberalization. But, so far, Medvedev's policies have not differed much in their substance from Putin, who retains the reputation as having the final say in Kremlin policy decisions.

Medvedev's public rhetoric has tended to show signs of willingness to improve cooperation between the government and civil society groups. In the beginning of September, for example, Medvedev published a document offering his strategic outlook on Russia's future. In it, he listed a strong civil society component as one of his vision's key elements. Later in his annual address to the Federal Assembly – Russia's Parliament – Medvedev spoke of his plans to support the non-governmental sector. But the president's support for NGOs has its limits: he was careful in his address to specify that he would support only those organizations that work with "socially marginalized citizens" and those that promote public health and sports.

Editor's Note: Masha Charnay is a freelance writer based in Moscow.

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