Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe

Tanya Lokshina
29 April 2007

In the 1990s, I used to work at the archives of the great Soviet-era scientist and human-rights defender Andrei Sakharov, which stocked a wealth of materials on the history of Soviet dissent. Needless to say, I became entirely fascinated by the subject. It was particularly striking to learn that many of the Soviet dissenters had been talented researchers or well-paid professionals, who gave up their relatively comfortable existence to flight the seemingly indestructible Soviet regime. Among them was the renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who died on 27 April 2007; like many others, he paid a heavy price (including exile and loss of citizenship) for his principles.

My parents belonged to the same generation. However, they were no heroes. They were not ready to risk the security of the family for a vague notion of freedom. Their dissenting ambitions amounted to cursing the Kremlin in the privacy of their cosy kitchen. I never judged them for it. However, I often found myself thinking that owing to the courage of some outstanding women and men who dared live like free people in a totalitarian state my generation received the invaluable gift of freedom as an integral part of our very life. Russian democracy was weak but full of promise. All the key democratic institutions were in place and some essential reforms were under way.

Tanya Lokshina is head of the Russian human-rights think-tank Demos

This article is abridged from one by Tanya Lokshina in Financial Times Deutschland on 25 April 2007

Also by Tanya Lokshina in open Democracy:

"Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

"Putin, Chechnya … and Politkovskaya"
(12 October 2006)

Freedom and democratic gains did not disappear in one day when Vladimir Putin assumed power in December 1999. It's been a gradual and lengthy process. For quite a while, the situation seemed curable. True, the gruesome war in Chechnya was already raging. Independent television was gone. Nevertheless, one could freely publish in some print media and on the web as well as hold innumerable press-conferences on the most sensitive issues. The Kremlin showed some evidently authoritarian trends but it was possible to speak out without fear.

It was in autumn 2003 that I realised with full certainty that some of the apparently long-gone Soviet realities were returning. Soon after the arrest of the oil-magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the security service officials called on several human-rights groups asking vague but intrusive questions. At the time, I worked as executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the most prominent human-rights organisations in the country. I had to go away on business and actually felt scared to abandon my staff when unwanted visitors were likely to raid the office. So, I called a staff-meeting and spent about twenty minutes explaining to everyone that in case of a visit from the Federal Security Service (FSB) they should say that the boss was away and they did not have the authority to answer any questions. I repeated that message over and over again and suddenly caught myself thinking, "What am I doing? It's almost like we're back in the USSR!"

A narrowing margin

Certainly, Russia today is very different from the Soviet Union. It is a strongly authoritarian state but not a totalitarian one. People can travel and read whatever books they want. The dramatic growth in oil prices means that living standards have improved quite significantly in recent years. At the same time, President Putin's regime has destroyed practically all the independent institutions capable of exercising control over the executive branch.

There is no such thing as an independent judiciary either. The Duma (parliament) is nothing but a puppet of the Kremlin. Independent business became history following the trial of Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his company Yukos. The media is severely censored and after the shocking murder of the award-winning journalist and human-rights champion Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, members of the small community of independent journalists and human-rights defenders realised how utterly vulnerable they all are. The new NGO legislation and the newly amended anti-extremist legislation are custom-made for selective use against the Kremlin's critics and opponents. Recently, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a small human-rights group promoting conflict resolution in Chechnya was closed down under the combination of these laws. Other victims are likely to follow in the immediate future (see Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report", 25 April 2007).

In the run-up to the parliamentary election in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008, the authorities are ruthlessly suppressing public protests. Peaceful assemblies and demonstrations are not forbidden under superficial pretexts. These de facto bans provoke the protestors to hold unsanctioned rallies, which are then violently dispersed by the police. A vivid example is the "march of dissent" held in Nizhny Novgorod 0n 24 March 2007, when several dozens of political and civil society activists were confronted with 20,000 police. A similar unsanctioned march was conducted in Moscow on 14 April; independent monitors, media and international organisations (including the Council of Europe) all highlighted the excessive use of force by law-enforcement authorities against the protestors.

Who joins these marches of dissent? Many of the activists are political supporters of Garry Kasparov, world chess champion and head of the United Civil Front movement; or of Eduard Limonov, a well-known writer and head of the National-Bolshevik Party. However, a growing number of those who take part in the public rallies do not belong to the organised political opposition. They choose to come out in the street because Putin's Russia with its overwhelming anti-democratic propaganda and overt repression makes them suffocate. They are ashamed of what is happening to their country. They are fighting for their inalienable right to live as free people.

Also in openDemocracy on Russian journalism and civil society:

Anna Politkovskaya, "Chechnya: Russia's shame"
(9 October 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Years ago, a prominent Soviet dissenter called Boris Shragin wrote that the several heroic individuals who found the courage to organise a public protest in Red Square against the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia felt empowered to do so by the unquestionable solidarity of western democracies. Today, Russian civil society does not feel such solidarity any longer, though the need for it is quite desperate.

Waiting for Europe

In the contemporary political context, it is the European Union that we are, first and foremost, calling to - particularly as the United States has lost a lot of leverage in international affairs. Russia cares about its relationship with the EU: not only because of the economic cooperation it embodies, but also because of the image of a respectable partner it can then cultivate. The EU's leading players, meanwhile, claim that they would like to pursue a robust human-rights policy and take an assertive position vis-à-vis Russia but that their need for energy security deprives them of the necessary leverage.

This assumption is either flawed or merely hypocritical. Russia will not shut off gas supplies to the west in response to European criticism. After all, while Europe needs to buy gas, Russia also needs to sell it at competitive rates. Furthermore, the EU's weak stand on human rights emboldens the Russian government to reinforce its authoritarian policies.

If the EU wants to resist being complicit in Russia's serious retreat from human rights, democracy and the rule of law, it should reconsider its own position, address Russia as an equal partner bound by shared international obligations, and voice clear human-rights demands to the Russian government. European democracies must stand up for Russian civil society. Germany, the current holder of the rotating six-month EU presidency, is in the best position to take the lead.

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