Daily Archives: January 16, 2007

Human Rights Watch Blasts Russian Atrocities in 2006

Reader Jeremy Putley draws our attention to the recently issued Human Rights Watch World Report 2007, which includes the following information about Russia:

The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaia profoundly shocked the human rights movement in Russia and internationally and symbolized the further deterioration of the human rights situation in Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has tightened its grip on human rights organizations and other independent institutions. Grave human rights abuses persist in Chechnya, including torture, abductions, and forced disappearances, and the conflict threatens to spill over into other regions of the northern Caucasus.

International scrutiny of Russia’s human rights record was grossly inadequate at a time when Russia assumed leadership of two international bodies in 2006, resulting in a lost opportunity to press Russia to improve its record. Russia took over chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in May and held the presidency of the Group of Eight, hosting the organization‘s summit in St Petersburg in July.

Despite claims of stability and reconstruction in Chechnya, the ongoing armed conflict continues to claim civilian lives. Russia’s federal forces play less of a direct role in Chechnya; pro-Kremlin Chechen forces under the command of Chechnya’s prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, known as the “kadyrovtsy” now dominate law enforcement and security operations and commit grave human rights abuses.

Although local human rights groups reported a slight decline in the number of abductions leading to forced disappearances in 2006, these disappearances remain a key feature of the conflict, with as many as 5,000 people “disappeared” since 1999 and at least 54 so far in 2006. Reports of torture, especially in unofficial detention centers run by the “Kadyrovtsy” increased in 2006.

The Russian government failed to pursue any accountability process for human rights abuses committed during the course of the conflict in Chechnya. Unable to secure justice domestically, hundreds of victims of abuse have filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The court issued landmark rulings on Chechnya, finding the Russian government guilty of violating the right to life and the prohibition of torture with respect to civilians who had died or been forcibly disappeared at the hands of Russia’s federal troops. Hundreds of similar claims are pending before the court.

Civil Society

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and independent journalists working on human rights issues, particularly the war in Chechnya, faced increasing administrative and judicial harassment. In some cases, these individuals also endured persecution, threats, and physical attacks.

In October 2006 an unidentified gunman murdered Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaia. Known for her independent reporting, particularly about abuses committed in the war in Chechnya, Politkovskaia was a fierce critic of the Kremlin and the pro-Russian Chechen government. There seemed little doubt she was killed because of her work. Also, there was a rise in the number of death threats against prominent human rights defenders.

In November 2005 authorities in Dagestan held Osman Boliev—a human rights defender who investigated kidnapping and other abuses by police—for three months on charges of illegal weapons possession. He was tortured in custody and later acquitted and released. In July 2006 police charged him with aiding the terrorists who seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002. Fearing for his safety, Boliev fled Russia.

In January President Vladimir V. Putin signed into law new regulations that impose burdensome reporting requirements on all NGOs and grant registration officials unprecedented authority to interfere with or restrict the work of NGOs. Under the law, officials may, without a court order, demand any document at any time from an NGO and order an intrusive inspection of an NGO’s office. The law requires foreign NGOs to submit annual and quarterly work plans and permits government officials to ban planned projects or activities that conflict with Russia’s national interests. All foreign NGOs had to re-register by mid-October; hundreds had to suspend their operations for weeks while their applications were pending.

In February a criminal court in Nizhni Novgorod handed Stanislav Dmitrievsky, the executive director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a two-year suspended sentence on charges of “inciting racial hatred” for articles he had published in the organization’s newspaper. The articles featured statements from leading Chechen separatists that in reality amounted to protected speech. A civil court liquidated the organization, finding that it had failed to distance itself from Dmitrievsky; as of this writing the case was on appeal with the Supreme Court.

Several Russian human rights organizations were threatened with—but avoided— closure for problems with their charter or failing to report their activities. But the International Defense Assistance Center, a Russian group that represents people from Russia at the ECHR received a bill for back taxes and penalties on tax exempt grants for US$167,000. Under the tax code, money for educational, analytical, and research purposes is not taxable and the tax bill appears to be an attempt to shut down the NGO, which has 250 cases pending before the ECHR.

Xenophobia and Intolerance

Human rights groups reported more than a hundred racist and xenophobic attacks—an increase over last year—including at least 36 murders and 286 people beaten or wounded in the first nine months of the year. Notably, in September violent mobs in Kondopoga, in northern Russia, attacked residents from the Caucasus, causing hundreds to flee the city fearing for their lives. Some of the more serious attacks have been prosecuted, but police routinely characterize racist crimes as hooliganism, a misdemeanor charge, rather than use sentencing enhancement for hate-motivated crimes available in Russian law.

After months of rising tensions between the Russian and Georgian governments, in October 2006 Georgian authorities in Tbilisi briefly detained four Russian military officers on accusations of espionage. In retaliation, the Russian government deported hundreds of Georgians, forced Georgian-owned businesses to close, and asked teachers for lists of school children with Georgian last names so their parents could be investigated for visa or tax violations.

After a court upheld Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov’s ban on a gay and lesbian pride march, on May 27, 2006, several dozen gay activists and supporters attempted to hold two protest rallies in support of freedoms of assembly and expression. Hundreds of anti-gay protesters, including skinheads, nationalists, and Orthodox followers, attacked the participants, beating and kicking many, and chanted threats. The mayor’s office had earlier made homophobic statements and circulated directives to restrict gay and lesbian rights.

Entrenched Problems

A gruesome case of hazing in the army, which resulted in a conscript having to have his legs and genitals amputated, once again pushed violent hazing in Russia’s military into the spotlight. The Ministry of Defense took steps to address this crime, but maintained that violent hazing is not widespread in Russia’s military and blamed television and “the decline of traditional values” for hazing rather than taking responsibility for the problem. Violent hazing results in the death of dozens of young soldiers every year, and serious injuries to thousands more. Many conscripts commit or attempt suicide and thousands defect from their units to escape harm.

Russia continued to increase attention and resources to combat HIV/AIDS. It proposed an ambitious plan to develop treatments and vaccines and raise awareness about the disease and made infectious diseases one of the key agenda items at the summit of G8 leaders in July. However, police abuse, harassment, and widespread discrimination against injection drug users and other groups at high risk for HIV/AIDS continued to interfere with HIV prevention, care, and treatment efforts. Access to treatment remained a major problem, with only a fraction of people living with the disease receiving anti-retroviral drugs.

Russia violated its obligations under the Convention against Torture by forcibly returning Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, where they face a risk of torture. In March 2006 the government announced it had returned 19 Uzbeks. In October it returned Rustam Muminov, an asylum seeker wanted on politically-motivated charges in Uzbekistan, in violation of Russian law and after the ECHR imposed an injunction to stop the deportation

Ummm . . . Happy New Year! . . . I guess . . . well, maybe not

Russians have a most odd set of traditions for observing holidays. On Sunday, La Russophobe reported that Russian oligarchs like to honor Russian Christmas by pimping out they ho’s. Now today, we read about Russian New Year’s celebrations, which last virtually idefinitely. Most normal nations, upon learning they had an average monthly wage of less than $350 combined with a declining adult lifespan and population would feel that they needed less vacation, not more. But Russia, as is often said, is not a normal country. The Seattle Times reports:

Most Americans have long resumed the daily grind after New Year celebrations, but millions of Russians only returned to work this week — stumbling back to reality after an official holiday whose length is the subject of parliamentary debate.

The same legislators who approved the 10-day holiday less than three years ago now are considering calls to cut short a break that for many Russians means an excessive intake of fatty food, hard drink and bad TV.

“I’m tired, I can’t deal with it,” complained Marina Kozhukhova, a Muscovite who said Friday that she was still trying to readjust to her daily routine.

The long holiday stems from Russia’s mix of Soviet-era traditions with those of the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church.

As under communism, New Year’s is the main winter holiday and the occasion for exchanging gifts, but a Christmas holiday was added after the Soviet collapse.

The Russian church celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, having retained the Julian calendar when Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin switched the country to the Gregorian calendar.

In 2004, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that essentially links the two holidays, creating a break that cannot be shorter than 10 days.

For some Russians, it’s even longer. Government officials returned to work Tuesday, but many others won’t be back until Monday, extending their time off until after what is called the “Old New Year” on Jan. 14 — New Year’s Day under the old Julian calendar.

One complaint about the long holiday is that it suits Russia’s political and business elite but is of little use to those who cannot afford trips abroad. Family budgets, already strained by New Year gifts and holiday meals, are stretched further as they spend on keeping themselves and their children occupied.

With school out during the holiday, Muscovites scramble to find tickets for a yolka — literally a fir tree — a seasonal children’s play featuring Grandfather Frost, Russia’s answer to Santa Claus, and his female sidekick, the Snow Maiden.

Meanwhile, television, which is mostly state-controlled, feeds viewers a steady diet of Soviet-era movies and made-for-TV holiday extravaganzas that, even for fans, can get tiring after a few days.

Then there’s the booze.

Critics say the holiday’s length encourages alcohol abuse, aggravating Russia’s drinking problem.

“If you drink, it seems to pass in one day,” said hairstylist Valery Chesnokov, 43. “If you don’t drink, it seems long.”

Legislators are expected to discuss the issue this year, amid calls for shortening the holiday and adding time off around May Day. That would satisfy critics who say that in May they can use free time to sow potatoes in backyard plots, while time off in January is time lost.

Meanwhile, experts are offering advice for Russians trying to recover after 10 days off.

“To regain strength, one should go to bed early and get enough sleep, and also pay attention to one’s intestines … and stop eating too much,” the New Region news agency quoted Mikhail Pertsel, the chief state psychotherapist for the Sverdlovsk region in the Ural mountains, as saying.

LR on PP

Check out La Russophobe’s latest installment on Publius Pundit, where she attempts to dissect the ongoing saga of Svetlichnaya and Litvinenko with a comprehensive review and critique of the situation as it stands today. Is she a Kremlin agent or the unwitting dupe of one? Or is she one of the good guys, and simply very deeply confused and hapless? Reader comments are welcome on this complicated and interesting topic.

Annals of the Russophile Menace

Yesterday, La Russophobe ran an excellent piece from Newsweek magazine exposing how Russia has alienated the entire world by pursuing its neo-Soviet agenda of hatred for the West. The question now for Russia is what to do, and as always the country is presented with two choices: (a) admit it is going down the wrong path, and reform; (b) deny there is problem on Russia’s side and blame everything on the West.

Since it began publishing the Moscow Times has been committed to seeking out Russophiles who would embrace the second option publicly. La Russophobe has always been curious as to whether they do this so they can appear “fair and balanced” when more weighty writers rip the Kremlin to shreds, or because they want to display the Russophile Menance in all its amazing outrage (reader comment on this question is very welcome).

Either way, enter English teacher Mark H. Teeter’s column on America’a image problem in Russia. Yes, that’s right, it’s America’s fault, and we need to shape up but quick lest we lose the munificent wonder of Russia’s good graces. Here’s the idiocy in full (and in black), with LR’s running commentary (in red):

The Pew Global Attitudes Project reported late last month that favorable views of the United States were on the decline among Russians in 2005-06, while unfavorable views rose, overtaking the positives by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent.

LR: Now, let’s be clear at the outset. This Teeter fellow has a vested financial interest in cuddling up to the Russians, who like nothing better than to have foreigners confirm for them that their insane, paranoid views of the outside world are correct. He lives among them and works for them. They’ll lap this stuff up like a plate full of cream, and they’ll no doubt reward him accordingly.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush likely lost little sleep over this news, preoccupied as it was with the mismanagement of two wars (in Iraq and on terror) and the continuing fallout from a massive electoral rejection at home. And even without its current mega-crises, the current U.S. regime would hardly have blinked at such a trend. One of this administration’s hallmarks is an Olympian indifference to what others — other governments, nations, individuals, flora, fauna, you name it — think about the United States. For that matter, the Pew data could be seen as merely a popular confirmation of the state of the two countries’ official relations. The ineptness of the Bush people has been matched by the clumsiness of their Russian counterparts, producing a chill that has made the phrase “Cold War II” seem decreasingly hyperbolic over the past year.

LR: This is completely insane, the signal hallmark of today’s Russophile. George Bush, more than any other person alive outside Russia, has bent over backward to flatter and accomodate “President” Putin. And this is what he gets for his trouble, classic Russian ingratitude. Does this moron really think that attacking the Bush regime is the best way to convince America to change it’s image in Russia? Apparently so.

Yet however unpopular the current U.S. administration has made itself and its country among Russians, it would be premature to assume that further anti-American drift in Russian public opinion is inevitable over the final two Bush years. Historians and various “old Russia hands” will testify that Russian perceptions of the United States have a history of fluctuation — and that some periods of U.S. popularity have occurred when official relations were perhaps as strained as they are now.

LR: If you can manage to read this drivel to the end, you will see that Mr. Teeter doesn’t give one single practical reason for Americans to care what Russians think of them, nor does he take Russians to task for any of their own failures to correctly present themselves to Americans. Can you imagine someone writing in the middle of World War II: “Yet however unpopular the current U.S. administration has made itself and its country among the Nazis, it would be premature to assume that further anti-American drift in Nazi public opinion is inevitable over the final two FDR years.”

The late Brezhnev era is a prime example. While there was no Pew project to measure popular attitudes in the Soviet Union of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the fact that a sizeable proportion of the Soviet citizenry held the United States in high regard then can be confirmed by a number of reliable sources, including me.

LR: This is classic Russophile gibberish: I have no data, but I don’t need any data, because I have my own personal observations.

Over seven months in 1978 and 1979, with Cold War I going full tilt, it was my job to exchange opinions with a cross-section of Soviet citizens — individuals and groups, six hours a day, six days a week — as a guide for a U.S. cultural exhibition touring three Soviet cities. If the impressions from this experience represent only “anecdotal evidence” to the strict sociologist, one basic message was unmistakably clear over thousands of conversations: The vast majority of our Soviet visitors had something favorable, or very favorable, to say about the United States.

LR: Is this fellow actually proud of the fact that he has no data? Is he really saying that we should just trust him, because he “knows” what he’s talking about whilst the whole rest of the world is confused? Sure seems like it. If you continue reading, you will see that Mr. Teeter doesn’t mention one single specific positive thing said by any Russian about America, nor does he name any person who allegedly made such a comment, nor does he point to any published record of any such comments, nor does he acknowledge that his activities would have been subject to strict KGB control and, hence, propaganda.

This was in the immediate wake, let’s recall, of the two greatest systemic crises in U.S. postwar history — the prolonged Vietnam debacle and the wrenching, divisive Watergate scandal. These disasters were not hidden from Soviet citizens by their government’s pervasive censorship, which hid almost everything positive it could about the United States. But their dark tones did not prevail against three things: a vast reservoir of good feeling toward the United States accumulated over previous decades, and especially during the World War II alliance; the abstract nature of the self-inflicted U.S. wounds (there wasn’t even a word for impeachment in Russian); and the all too concrete shortcomings of the already-decomposing Soviet system, which made almost any vision of the United States glow in comparison. Whatever else it was, U.S. society was perceived as economically advanced and politically dynamic — while the Soviet Union was decidedly neither.

LR: Is this man really saying with a straight face that Watergate and Vietnam were major issues in the Soviet media? And even if the Soviet people’s cup was overflowing with love for Americans (rather that just some propaganda designed to dupe a witless American boob like Mr. Teeter), didn’t it occur to him that this love was totally meaningless because the policy of the state continued to be cold war confrontation? If Russians really thought things were so bad in Soviet times, why did they elect and reelect a proud KGB spy as their president only a few years after the USSR collapsed?

Many if not most of today’s post-Soviet Russians by comparison do not see the United States as either a distinct or overwhelmingly attractive alternative to the “sovereign democracy” unfolding around them. While U.S. popular culture and economic stability are still admired, the United States itself is perceived by many — including many of my students — as a country off course and losing ground. And it is hard to disagree with them. That said, it is also true that Russian disillusionment with the reality of the United States is not irreversible — or is no more irreversible, let’s say, than the disillusionment of a sizeable portion of the U.S. population itself.

LR: So let’s see now: The U.S. has an economy ten times larger than Russia’s, far more influence around the world, and a growing population, while Russians labor for $300 per month and lose 1 million people from their population every year. But AMERICA is the country on the wrong track? And AMERICA needs to wake up and become more like Russia? What has this man been smoking and where can La Russophobe get her some? The idea that Americans need to go on bended knee to Russians and beg them to realize Americans aren’t evil (presumably after making an elaborate study of just the right vodka-induced way to frame the statement so Russians can best accept it) is, flatly, absurd. It’s like suggesting that a college graduate applying to Microsoft should expect Bill Gates to convince him why he should deign work for the company. The fact that Russians continue to think this way, and that hapless foreigners like Mr. Teeter continue to encourage them, goes a long way to explaining why Russia‘s population is declining and its average wage pennies per hour. What’s more, the idea that a country which would elect a proud KGB spy as its president (twice!) and sell huge amounts of weapons to Hugo Chavez while supporting rogue terrorist regimes in Iran and Palestine would suddenly come around because of a PR campaign is naive to say the least. Quite possible, Mr. Teeter has been “in country” too long and is losing his perspective.

The U.S. image problem in Russia needs to be recognized in Washington as the indicative symptom it is. And once recognized, it needs to be understood as a problem more ours than that of our Russian observers. Such a two-stage epiphany might conceivably dawn before 2009. Afterward, steps could be taken to reverse the decline in the perception by changing the reality behind it. Only with that under way can the concept of a functional, reality-based Russian-U.S. partnership re-enter the realm of the possible — and Cold War II perhaps be frozen in its tracks.

Now, La Russophobe asks you, dear reader: Does that not sound exactly like what the Kremlin itself would say if we asked them? Once you’re done pondering that, ask yourself this: Does this “English teacher” really think he’s got the answer for American politicians, and that they’re going to listen to him? Is he that crazed? Or is he simply writing for domestic consumption, to enhance his personal reputation as a Russophile and cuddle up to those who pay his salary?