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Analysis & Opinion
06.08.10 Are Attacks On Human Rights Activists In Russia Part Of The Power Struggle In The Kremlin?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Alexandre Strokanov; Ethan S. Burger; Vladimir Belaeff

Ella Pamfilova, who headed the Presidential Council on Human Rights and the Development of Civil Society, quit her job unexpectedly last Friday without giving a reason for her decision. This comes as a blow to President Medvedev who has made developing civil society and protecting citizens’ rights a major theme of his presidency. Are human rights a divisive issue among Russia’s leaders? And was Pamfilova a casualty of infighting among the political elite?

Pamfilova's announcement came a day after Medvedev signed into a law a hugely controversial bill expanding the powers of the FSB security service, which activists have slammed as a throwback to the Soviet era. Pamfilova has been a vocal critic of this law and even suggested that the FSB and other Russian security services need to be reformed and restructured along with the Interior Ministry to root out corruption and incompetence in their ranks.

Pamfilova and Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin also criticized the security forces’ brutal treatment of Russian protesters known as “Strategy 31” who stage unsanctioned rallies in Moscow and other cities on the 31st day of every month which has one to exercise their right to public assembly under Article 31 of the Russian Constitution. Pamfilova and Lukin have been publicly ostracized and humiliated by the United Russia party leaders as well as affiliated youth groups for their voice in defense of the Strategy 31 protesters.

Pamfilova had over the last months clashed repeatedly with the controversial and influential pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi. The latest spat broke out this week over an exhibition staged by a Nashi offshoot at its annual summer camp where images of the heads of Russian liberals like Lyudmila Alexeeva, 83, were stuck on stakes in Nazi headgear.

Nashi and other related youth groups are sponsored by the Kremlin’s chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov, who happens to co-chair the U.S.-Russian Working Group on Civil Society and President Medvedev’s Commission on Modernization. Kommersant reported that it was the constant clashes with Surkov and the public harassment from his sidekicks that influenced Pamfilova’s decision to quit her job.

Some Surkov loyalists, like Alexei Chadayev, the United Russia Party’s chief ideologist, have sought to portray Pamfilova’s resignation as a plot by Medvedev’s senior aides, including presidential Press Secretary Natalya Timakova and his informal advisor and mentor Alexander Voloshin, to weaken Surkov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by suggesting that media attacks on Pamfilova and other human rights activists, as well as brutal suppression of dissident marches, had been purposefully engineered by Surkov and Putin to discredit Medvedev and his strategy of seeking modernization alliances with the West.

Could this be true? Are attacks on Russian human rights activists part of the power struggle in the Kremlin? Could this be a sign of an intensifying war of the clans between supporters of Medvedev and Putin? Why are human rights an issue of confrontation between the camps? Is it part of a real ideological divide between Putin and Medvedev or is it merely being manipulated to avoid raising other, much less benign, issues in Russian politics? How should the West react to this? Will it endorse Medvedev’s camp under the universal guise of defending human rights in Russia and thus insert itself into a purely domestic Russian power play?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

The assumption that Pamfilova’s resignation has anything to do with Medvedev’s strategy of seeking modernization alliances with the West is so ridiculous that I do not think it even deserves a commentary. I will put the emergence of such an assumption in Moscow down to high temperatures and the smoky air.

Nor do I see human rights as an area for confrontation between the Kremlin’s camps or part of an ideological divide between Putin and Medvedev. Medvedev never spoke in favor of those whom you call dissidents and who, in my humble opinion, are insistently and purposefully trying to meet in unauthorized places, seek media attention, and in general act as a group of street showmen. This is really what it is, even if some of them consider their activity as a struggle for freedom and constitutional rights.

Now, I would like to say a few words on the resignation of Pamfilova from the Presidential Council on Human Rights and the Development of Civil Society. I personally applaud the decision and interpret it as her final realization that she was not a good choice for such a position from the very beginning. Pamfilova is an interesting example of what I call the “unsinkable boats” that have been in Russian politics since Yeltsin’s time.

In 1991, when she was one of Yeltsin’s favorites, she was appointed to the position of minister of social policy. It was a shocking appointment, due to the fact that none of her previous activities and experiences had anything to do with the field, since she worked as an engineer in MosEnergo (Moscow Electric Energy Company) before her election to the Supreme Soviet of RSFSR in 1989. The results of her performance as social minister are well known to everybody who is familiar with the social disaster of the early 1990s, and I am not going to go into details here. In my opinion and from the impression that I had after my own meetings and conversation with her from 1991 to 1993, she obviously lacked competence in the field.

However, her resignation as minister did not end her political career and she again tried to be a lawmaker, serving in the State Duma from 1993 till 1999. She changed her allegiance between several Duma blocs and coalitions of deputies, and with the end of Yeltsin’s epoch she finally failed to be elected to the State Duma, although she tried in 1999. She ran in the presidential elections of 2000, but received only 1.01 percent of votes.

In 2002 president Putin appointed her chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights under the President of Russia and in 2004, after the commission was reorganized, she was appointed again by Putin with the title that she carried until her resignation on July 30, 2010. In my opinion, her performance in this position may be qualified, at best, as mediocre. For the majority of Russian people she was just a bureaucrat and her resignation will not even be noticed outside the Kremlin and the Boulevard ring of Moscow.

It is also quite symbolic that she chose to resign at the very moment when the country is going through one of the toughest tests in many decades. Thousands of families are losing their homes to natural fires and people in many regions are experiencing incredible suffering, but in her understanding this, probably, has nothing to do with civil society.

How should the West react to this? It should show, absolutely, no reaction. First, reacting to such things would be such blatant interference in the domestic affairs of another state that no responsible foreign government will ever do it. Second, these events should represent absolutely no serious interest for any country or its government.
It may actually be much more important for the West to express support to the Russian people who are fighting wild fires, and provide help to the country and those who have lost everything in recent weeks. These acts will really prove that we have civil society on a global scale and that the West really wishes Russia and Russians well.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia

I am not able to offer insightful analysis of the recent political intrigue between the Kremlin and other leading officials in Moscow. But, if people with progressive views find themselves forced out of their political positions or increasingly marginalized, this does not augur well for Russia in the long term, or for the countries that have sought to improve relations with it.

It was not in Pamfilova’s nature to bless policies she felt were offensive. Although she might have been co-opted to some extent, she did not betray her core values, even if her impact on state policy was marginal.

But because her impact was so marginal, it is hard to explain why Pamfilova decided to stay in her position so long. Perhaps initially, she might have thought she could function as a firewall against increased repression in Russian society. But although she had the freedom to speak her mind, she was not apparently able to influence policy. The situation seemed to change with the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president in 2008.

When Vladimir Putin decided to make Dmitry Medvedev his heir apparent, it appeared that he would retain control over national security and foreign policy matters, while Medvedev’s principal responsibilities would lie in the reform of the bureaucracy and judiciary, economic modernization, cultural liberalization, social welfare issues, and the ceremonial aspects of being Russia’s president.

Perhaps, finally, Pamfilova would enjoy real influence: working within the system, finding allies among president Medvedev’s circle and trying to bring about as much positive change as possible.

Unfortunately, Putin and his inner circle have an expansive view of national security that has led him and his people to gradually encroach into areas of Medvedev’s responsibility. And in recent days there have been a number of troubling developments in Russia that show what little influence Pamfilova really exercised.

The youth group Nashi, which has threatened to sue Pamfilova for “slanderous” remarks she made about the organization, is growing in influence in the country with the active support of elements within the Russian government. Nashi seems to be a magnet for members of Russia’s radical right, and the idea that such proto-fascist groups might indicate the path Russia is pursuing is out of kilter with president Medvedev’s goal of modernizing Russian society.

The FSB has been granted extra-legal powers, further confirmation that the influence of those within the government seeking to strengthen human and civil rights is waning. The targets of the anti-corruption campaign seem to be increasingly politically motivated.

It is unlikely that Pamfilova will remain a prominent figure on the Russian stage, and her fate might deter those with similar views from any action that could remotely be construed as anti-government.

Nonetheless, there remain individuals in positions of authority in Russia who continue to attempt to influence things in a positive way. Chairman of the Russian Supreme Court Vyachaslav Lebedev has stated Russian lower courts are duty bound to implement the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. To the dismay of many members of United Russia, Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has called for a comprehensive and thorough inquiry into the "savage and inappropriate" use of violence against a peaceful opposition rally in Moscow.

Furthermore, most of those staffing the various regional ombudsman’s offices seem committed to protecting the civil and human rights of Russian citizens. Audit Chamber Head Sergei Stepashin seems committed to implementing the anti-corruption campaign in a uniform fashion against the vast majority of corrupt officials.

If these individuals are forced out of their positions or feel morally compelled to resign, any realistic hope of the system reforming itself will probably disappear.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc. (USA), San Francisco, CA

Although unexpected by most observers, the resignation of Pamfilova is not a sign of anything politically substantial. One needs to take into account that she has been in government since 1989. And during that 21-year tenure her overall visibility has been relatively minor. Her position and actions over these two decades are not widely known.
Currently, there is a generational change in Russian politics. Political wind-surfers and others who became prominent in the final years of the Soviet Union and the early Yeltsin period are leaving - many with parting decorations and (presumed, undisclosed golden parachutes). Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev (came to power 1991), Bashkhoristan President Murtaza Rukhimov (1993), and Sverdlovsk Region Governor Eduard Rossel (1995) are the more visible recent retirements. There are many stimuli for such departures. One is the growing anti-corruption pressure: during the past 12 months there have been quite a few widely publicized anti-corruption actions against senior administrators. Although the anti-corruption drive may be a small dent in the overall problem, it can ruin the day for any given individual. Another stimulus is the strong insistence by both Medvedev and Putin on competence and personal accountability of managers and officials.

All we know is that Pamfilova has declared her reasons for resigning as personal, has not made any political declarations and has not described her plans. Any speculation about the real motives behind her departure is hypothetical and possibly an attempt to exploit her resignation to advance extraneous agendas.

The Other Russia group executes its “Strategy 31” campaign as primitive political theatre. To label Strategy 31 as human rights activism and assign it the mantle of a dissident movement is an oblique insult to the truly heroic human rights defenders of the Soviet era like Andrei Sakharov. Boris Nemtsov, the National Bolsheviks and others of that ilk associated with Other Russia have not earned any such qualification. And as a political force this group is marginal even among the tiny political community which seems to be forever stuck in the 1990s. Their political traction within the electorate is within the statistical margin of error even in friendly opinion surveys.

Pamfilova’s departure, like her earlier presence, will be barely noticeable in the real political climate of contemporary Russia.

Regarding the supposed ideological contraposition of Medvedev and Putin, it bears repeating that this image resembles a manufactured myth. Differences in style are presented as differences in substance. The determinants of Russian policy are such that any effective government will execute policies that are similar in goals and substance to the ones presently in operation. If Other Russia were to govern, they would fail miserably in the short time, destabilizing a superpower with thousands of nuclear warheads and global reach. From a practical point of view, no sane person can support this.

Simply put, can one expect a government composed of Nemtsov, Limonov and their ilk to successfully cope with something stressful but relatively uncomplicated like the current forest fire emergency in Central Russia? All Other Russia has proven is its ability to provoke confrontations with Russian police and getting its members spectacularly arrested (to be quickly released afterwards). Even the Communist Party (KPRF), the real opposition to the present government of Russia, has better political instincts.

To suggest that Pamfilova’s resignation is somehow connected with the human rights activism of Strategy 31 appears extremely frivolous. Of course, time will tell. We might yet see her locked arm-in-arm with Nemtsov at the next event - but that hypothetical alliance would say nothing about the political future of Russia.
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