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President Medvedev summons Russia’s human rights workers

On 19 May, at a meeting with the main human rights organizations working in the republics of the North Caucasus, President Medvedev enjoined the local authorities to work with the NGOs to enforce the rule of law and tackle abuses of power by the security forces. Tanya Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch’s Russia Office, who was there, intends to hold the president to his words

We met at noon on 19 May under the clock of the Spasskaya tower. In fact, the great clock was striking as I wound my way through the summery, multi-coloured crowd of tourists and ran across the sunny square past Lenin’s mausoleum and the gravestones. The tight skirt and severe black jacket (quite unsuitable for the weather) restricted my movements, and my high heels kept getting stuck in the stones... It’s certainly one of the advantages of working in the ”third sector” that you are free to dress informally. But you can’t exactly go to the Kremlin in a summer dress. And the group of my friends shifting from one foot to the other by the tower were all sporting dark suits. I couldn’t help smiling to see men who usually wear nothing but jeans clumsily twisting their necks, constrained by the ties.

We all know each other very well.  Human rights activists who work seriously in Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus can pretty well be counted on your fingers -- especially as some of them have been killed in recent years. Anya Politkovskaya is dead. Stas Markelov is dead. Natasha Estemirova is dead. And when we get together, jostling and joking, as we look at the familiar faces, we catch ourselves thinking – who will be next?! And how will you manage if yet another person is taken away?

This is probably why we are here now, at the entrance to the Kremlin’s inner sanctum. Working in the North Caucasus, which was far from safe in the past, has been getting more dangerous by degrees. Especially in Chechnya, where the people, who desperately need help, increasingly refuse to talk to us: ‘How can you protect me if you couldn’t even save your own Natasha?’

So when Dmitry Medvedev announced that he wanted to meet the people working in the Caucasus, many of us thought: ”Even if this Kremlin meeting doesn’t actually change things,  it will at least serve as a kind of writ of protection for organizations whose representatives have spent a few hours in the ”citadel of power”, talking with the Russian president. And God knows, if this can do anything to protect the people in Memorial who are walking on a knife’s edge in Chechnya, then we must go to the meeting, no question.

Literally at the last chime of the clock, an unassuming wooden door opens – and we slowly walk in. Young policemen check the names in our passports against the list of participants –everyone has already been cleared by the special services. There is a small yard, and another checkpoint. ”Mobile phone? Computer? Any other equipment? Hand it all over”. Yes, of course... A monumental carpeted staircase leads upstairs, and we feel as if we are on television.

There is a kind of luxury dining room – soft chairs and sofas, white tables with trays of tiny pastries. Polite waiters hover around and strong espresso and tea are available for the asking. Here we must wait for another hour or so... Still, you can’t complain about the waiting conditions. I sip my coffee and look at the participants who are not from our group.

Of course it is not only real human rights activists who have been invited to the meeting. There are also people here from Chechen organizations that are completely controlled by the local authorities, who see it as their mission to defend the authorities from criticism by Memorial and other independent actors; representatives of obscure NGOs that allegedly work in the Caucasus; activists who are exclusively involved in social problems; and a pair of representatives of the Public Chamber who are concerned with the crisis in the Caucasus.

Still, of the 26 people present, half are from the human rights sector. They are the ones who will be raising the most unpleasant questions, about the abuses by law enforcement and security agencies, the kidnappings, disappearances, torture, executions without trial, collective punishments, the radicalization of the tormented population, their alienation from the state...

I know the reports they have prepared pretty much word for word – no less than my own, about the climate of next-to-absolute lawlessness and impunity in Chechnya, the non-implementation of decisions of the European Court, the burning of houses, and other persecution of relatives of rebels by the law-enforcement structures  under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen president.  I know, because I have read them, and also edited them in some places. For we all prepared for this meeting together. We shared topics and agreed on who should speak first. Svetlana Gannushkina from Memorial and the Civil Assistant Committee will give a general survey of the human rights situation in the region. Timur Akiev from the Ingushetia office of Memorial will talk about the illegal actions of the siloviki in Ingushetia. Zaur Gaziev, a journalist and also a staff-member of Memorial, will talk about similar abuses in Dagestan.  Ayub Titiev from Memorial in Chechnya will talk about the thousands of people who have disappeared. Igor Kalyapin from the Nizhny Novgorod Committee against Torture will talk about the negligence of the prosecutor’s office, and so on. And the president will listen to all of them, since it is precisely these people who have no vested interest in these issues whom he has invited to this meeting of his Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. His recently appointed representative in the new North Caucasian federal district, Alexander Khloponin, who was until recently the head of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, will be listening to all this too. And now, by the way, his ”enforcer” has just joined the ranks of  those of us  who are waiting.

Now it’s time. A clink of china cups and saucers, a rustle of paper, the sound of footsteps. And the arching ceilings of the Catherine Hall, a massive circle of tables with name plates, notebooks and sharpened pencils with ”Kremlin” written on them – thanks for reminding us – a flag, a coat of arms, allegoric statues, what else... 15 minutes of empty waiting – and Medvedev enters. Everyone gets up and sits down with him. Time to get started.

The president starts speaking, and immediately dots the ”i”s from his point of view. There are many problems in the region, extremely serious ones, but the most important is that of the right to life. This is violated by terrorists, who exploit the large-scale corruption and socio-economic problems. The law-enforcement structures are also ”not ideal”, but ”at the same time, we’re all aware that they are risking their lives almost every day, protecting those who live in the republics in the North Caucasus.” The creation of a North Caucasus federal district and the wide powers that will be vested in the presidential representative, Alexander Khloponin, should play an important role in overcoming the crisis.

Here our task is to shift the emphasis. Unfortunately, the right to life is not only violated by terrorists, but also by people who work for the state, and they do it on a large scale. And of course, in order to stabilize a situation that has got out of control, people need work; a proper education system must be created, and corruption must be dealt with. But until the law-enforcement structures start acting within the boundaries of the law, normalization in the region cannot be expected. The abuse of power and illegal methods of carrying out anti-terrorist operations give rise to a lack of trust in the authorities, and even a situation where people start regarding law enforcers as enemies. Young people who are constantly victimized become particularly vulnerable to recruitment by the rebels. There is plenty of evidence that the activity of the armed underground has been growing recently. The crisis will only get worse if the state keeps fighting the insurgents using methods like kidnapping and executions without trial.

Toward the end of the meeting, Medvedev says: ”I think that the following thesis is wrong: deal with executions without trial and kidnapping, find everyone responsible for the killings, and this is the most important thing, everything else is a side issue. I think that if we are guided by this principle, then we will never have normal life in the Caucasus. We need to deal with these issues and others, we need to create a future that should unify everyone”.

Who would take  issue with that? Those who spoke exclusively about problems of law-enforcement abuse do not believe that the serious economic situation, lack of jobs, normal education and health care are not worthy of attention. Of course they are! But if one allows these issues to obscure human rights and vulnerability of citizens, it will impossible to untie the Gordian knot.

In this respect it is cause for hope that according to the president, Khloponin has been given a mandate not only to ”correct the socio-economic situation”, but also to ”strengthen legality and law enforcement, develop the court system and ensure human rights in the region”. Medvedev himself was emphatic about the need to respect the courts. He said that he was prepared to give his “total support” to dealing with what he termed “extrajudicial repression”. And of course, it is excellent news that the president has ordered Khloponin to organize a public dialogue on the problems of the region – so that the authorities can seek answers to all these painful issues together with civil society, and not just at their own discretion.

The most positive moment of the Kremlin meeting for us was probably when Medvedev talked about the need for civil society and non-governmental organizations to act as partners to the authorities at all levels. True, the president did not comment on Svetlana Gannushkina’s words about the ineffective investigation of Natasha Estemirova’s death (evidently he simply has nothing to say on this). But he did note in his opening speech that ”During the period from 2008 to 2010 over 10 renowned journalists and human rights activists were killed”. And he did practically order officials to develop contacts with civic society organizations, telling those present to come to him if any officials try to ignore them: ”Bodies of power at all levels should be in constant dialogue with non-governmental organizations. This is what you are going to tell me about today: who works with you and how, who refuses to work...”

In conclusion, Medvedev even announced that regional heads who are not up for this kind of cooperation should prepare to be dismissed, and one of the heads of republics in the North Caucasus has already been thrown out for this reason (no, since the president asked us, we won’t point fingers, but it’s not hard to guess whom he means): ”Dialogue with various bodies working in the republics of the North Caucasus is the sacred duty of presidents and heads of administrations. They do not make contact with armed formations, but it is their duty to be in contact with the various bodies that exist. And the heads of republics who do not do this must ultimately leave, otherwise they will simply not achieve anything. The staffing decisions that I have made in this regard (I will not name anyone now, you are well-informed people and know who I am talking about) were connected among other things with the fact that some of our colleagues occupying the position of heads of republics of the Federation in the North Caucasus lost contact with various civic bodies, simply hid behind fences, did not do anything, and retreated into their shells”.

Of course, some of the participants left the Kremlin in a bad mood – because of problems with the agenda, far from everyone got an opportunity to speak. Of course, it is unclear what Medvedev meant by his strange request not to have leaders of various republics ”lock horns”, because ”people in the Caucasus are easily offended”, and not to say that Yunus-Ben Yevkurov, Ingushetia’s president ”is good, and Kadyrov in Chechnya is bad. That is especially true as this request directly contradicts the point he made immediately afterward: ”This does not mean that we should keep silent about problems, we need to keep talking about them quite frankly, as you’ve been doing today”.

One would like to believe that the president himself understands that his ”personal request” is simply impossible. No one can argue with the idea that we shouldn’t personalize the situation. But in doing so we can’t ignore facts. And the fact is that in Ingushetia there is a policy directed toward stopping the abuse of power, which has encountered serious resistance from the security agencies. And we support this policy, which happens to be advanced by Yevkurov. The fact also is that in Chechnya there is a harsh repressive policy, which annihilates the very concept of rights and rule of law and will only lead Russia to a complete deadlock in the Caucasus. And this policy is advanced by Kadyrov.

How can we not talk about this? How can we fail to compare these two approaches, and uphold the first as necessary for the entire region? So what if Kadyrov is offended? Being offended is the privilege of a private individual, not the head of a republic in the federation. And in this context, Medvedev’s phrase also sounded odd: ”If you think that there’s something I don’t know, that is not the case. I know more than everyone present here....” What did the president mean? That he knows everything about Kadyrov and his style of governance? Then why is he not taking some action? One would very much like to believe that Medvedev was not trying to tell us that he had heard nothing new or important... Otherwise he would not have organized this meeting and insisted on the importance of ”dialogue”, would he?

In any case, the main result of the Kremlin meeting today is the very fact of its being held. That he has gone on record as saying so much about the importance of the work of non-governmental organizations, about regional leaders being obliged to work with them, means that the Russian president has officially given a green light to human rights activists in the region, legitimizing them as permanent and essential interlocutors with local and federal authorities. And this certainly made it worthwhile to put on a suit and go to the Kremlin.

Another important thing is that Medvedev promised to familiarize himself ”personally” with all the reports that we made during the meeting, and ”personally” respond to them, including in the form of specific presidential instructions. The president’s words are probably worth something. So now we are waiting for your responses and your actions, Mr. President!


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