Many problems, but one purpose: human rights in Russia

Russian human rights activists routinely put themselves in danger’s way, but are largely unappreciated and mistrusted by their compatriots. In times of despair, Anna Sevortian is brought back to one thing: idealism.

Anna Sevortian
10 December 2010

When I sat down with my colleagues to produce our annual Human Rights Watch Report on Russia, we had a remarkable conversation. How — and with what index — could we report on the persecution of Russian human rights activists, given that this year there were happily no deaths to write about? To feel comforted by this reality seemed a rather perverted emotion for peacetime. The work of human rights activists in Russia is characterised by many similarly complex and painful dilemmas. The issues we deal with range from physical security to the promotion of social justice. While the article that follows looks to focus on these issues in particular, I hope that its broad sweep will also give some indications of the state of Human Rights in Russia in the year 2010. 

The question of trust 

When will human rights cease to be perceived as purely “western values”? When will a majority of Russians feel confident enough to affirm that human rights are universal and apply to everyone, that they apply to absolutely everyone? 


Policeman Denis Yevsyukov readies his pistol ahead of a supermarket shooting spree. Outrageous incidents such as these were responsible for bringing Russian society and human rights activists together in an unusual consensus over police reform. 

The question of society's trust in human rights activists is an issue of real concern for the latter, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Yet it is precisely here that the fate of human rights in Russia will hinge — on the vital contact between activists and society and on the extent to which the urgent issues and concerns of one group are understood and shared by the other.

In 2010, police reform was the obvious point of consensus. Russia reached this point, it must be said, only after a series of particularly outrageous crimes had been committed by members of the law enforcement agencies (and, more to the point, only after a barrage of criticism had hit the Internet). Russian society reached boiling point for the first time last spring, when policeman Denis Yevsyukov went on a shooting spree in a busy Moscow supermarket, killing two and injuring seven others. It was reported that he had had an argument with his wife.

Early in the new year yet another terrifying story had appeared — first on the Internet, and then in the press. This was the tale of journalist Konstantin Popov, who was severely assaulted in a Tomsk sobering-up station while under custody of policeman Alexei Mitayev. On 20 January, Popov died in hospital. Perhaps it is inappropriate to talk about irony in tragedies such as these, but there was something absurd about the timing of the incident. One day earlier, the Ministry of the Interior had proudly issued Order No. 25, which detailed how the police were to transfer to a new system of performance evaluation. No longer would they be driven by the old abstract numerical targets, but instead by a series of indicators that would include public satisfaction with their work. 

Not too long ago, I came across a pamphlet produced by the Project Group on Human Rights — published in 1994 and with a print-run of 2000 (large by today's standards). It was arrestingly titled: "Crime. What we know about it. The Police: what we think about them". The pages had been somewhat jaundiced by the passing of time, but the pamphlet’s key findings, which are contained on the final page, jumped out for their contemporary prescience:

"The biggest problem people have with the police today is that — in both perception and reality — the police have proven themselves ineffective in performing their duty as guarantor of citizens' rights. Indeed, in many circumstances, they have actually directly violated such rights. To a certain degree, the population is committed to developing constructive relations with the police, yet the reverse can not be said of the police." 

A study carried out by the "Public Verdict" NGO in spring 2010 shows very similar figures and trends (link in Russian). Sixty percent of Russians, it says, are unsatisfied with the work of the police. In September, Levada-Centre carried out another important survey, which focused in the first instance on perceptions relating to the Magnitsky affair. (link in Russian)  About two thirds of Russians surveyed agreed that representatives of the security services “regularly commit unlawful acts”. 

"Russian society is not uniform and is to a large degree atomized. This has direct relevance to the work of human rights activists in Russia. Even on those infrequent occasions when we find consensus around a particular issue, we still lack a common language of 'human rights' "

In terms of the interim results of this year’s public consensus on police reform, what we can say for certain is that we now have a bill, which will eventually see the "militia" renamed "politsia". Human rights organisations also played an important initial role in developing a series of reform principles (unfortunately, the period of fruitful collaboration between human rights activists and legislators was short and has since come to an end). There has been a broad discussion of the reform bill online. In particular, the Internet played host to a highly successful campaign — "Five simple amendments for the police" — which lobbied for a number of simple legal rights (the right for a phone call on arrest etc). Some of these suggestions will, it is reported, find themselves included in the bill, supposedly at the personal request of President Medvedev. 

And what of Russia's citizens?  According to Levada Centre's figures from December 2009, some 11% of Russians believed the interests of the state should usurp the rights of the individual (12% think the reverse). Almost a fifth — 18% — were “in certain circumstances” prepared to surrender their rights to the state. 49% of those surveyed felt people had a right to “defend their rights, even if that goes against the interests of the state". 10% had no view. (link in Russian)

While there are any number of conclusions to be made, what we can say with some certainty is that Russian society is not uniform and is to a large degree atomized. This has direct relevance to the work of human rights activists in Russia. Even on those infrequent occasions when we find consensus around a particular issue, we still lack a common language of "human rights" that will work across all Russia’s "sub-societies".

"The second Khodorkovsky trial has come to be viewed as a litmus paper for Russia's entire political and social development"

The question of independent courts

Is an independent judiciary possible in Russia? Will judicial investigation ever begin to work properly? To what extent does the European Court of Human Rights act as an authority for Russia? 

Many colleagues working in human rights believe an independent judiciary is the key to unlocking human rights abuses in Russia. On this front, there is a lot of work to do. Some 63% Russians still believe that in a dispute between the state and a simple individual, a court will always find in favour of the former. 17 % believe bribes decide everything. Just 11% of Russians currently believe the judicial system in Russia is free and fair. (link in Russian)

Of course, Russia's politically-engaged classes and foreign observers have for some time been intensely focused on the outcome of one court proceedings in particular — the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. Over the past year, the trial has come to be viewed as a litmus paper for Russia's entire political and social development. Indeed, Arseny Roginsky, Chair of Memorial Human Rights Society, believes this particular collision is rapidly becoming a major factor in no less than the making of Russian society: 

"I feel that with time, more and more people will come to recognize Khodorkovsky's stand not only as a personal battle, but as a battle for values we all share. First and foremost, as a battle for the values of human rights and freedom" (citation in Russian)

The conclusion to this unhappy intrigue — the reading of the final verdict — will begin in Moscow on 15 December. The next day, proceedings will continue in a case brought against Oleg Orlov, director of the Memorial Human Rights Center. The activist is being pursued for slander by head of the Chechen republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Orlov had declared that Kadyrov bore responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of journalist-activist Natalya Estemirova, who was an employee in Memorial's Grozny office.

A third significant court case has already reached its conclusion. On October 4 2010, the Moscow City Court upheld the criminal convictions of Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, who were co-organisers of a small contemporary art exhibition called "Forbidden Art. 2006". Both were found guilty of "inciting hatred or enmity" (Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code). The judge ordered Samodurov and Yerofeev to pay considerable fines. Yet it could have been much worse — jail was a real possibility when Russian law assigns criminal responsibility to pictures as it does to words. 

There were, of course, more than just three litmus papers by which to judge the Russian judicial system. There were many more individual decisions that deserve our attention: some concerning, others reasonably encouraging. In 2010, for example, Russia finally ratified the 14th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has already handed down several hundred verdicts on Russian cases, decisions that are now being invoked as precedents by the local courts. 

A recent report by the International Committee of Jurists noted positive reforms, yet suggested that the Russian legal system "seems to be struggling with its institutional past and longstanding legal culture". Will the past emerge victorious? Clearly, the future of the justice system is at stake. 

Ideals and their protection in the wild

The core of our work in Russia is focused on the human dimension of human rights work, and sadly on more existential matters. In short, how can we ensure the safety of our colleagues? How do we support our colleagues who raise issues that clearly open them up to risks and threats to their person? How do we organize human rights work in the dangerous environment of the North Caucasus? What if an organization does not have resources or public support? How can we help everyone who turns to us for support?  And should we encourage human rights activists to take part in politics?

Sometimes, the issues we deal with are on the level of the mundane and the pragmatic. How, for example, do you comply with your mission and/or obligations if you can’t get rid of tax inspectors that have been hanging around your office for two months? What do you do when you are faced with a sudden and significant increase in your tax obligations? (This, by the way, will be the reality for many NGOs from 1 January 2011 — organisations that are far from wrapped in cotton wool as things stand). 

And yet, if we allow ourselves to abstract from the deeply mundane for just one minute, if we allow ourselves to think deeply about the issues of human rights and challenges in society, we will ultimately come the same point — the role of idealism in human rights. Let me end with the words of Sergei Lukashevksy, the executive director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre:

"In the 1960s, Andrei Sakharov formulated a vision of global problems, and the ways he saw of overcoming them. Today, we don’t have any such model or theory. The task of intellectuals lies in developing such a theory, formulating an ideal, initiating discussion. Basic values — life, freedom, dignity — require no revision. What every era needs is a new interpretation, a new reading that soaks up the contemporary social context”. 

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