Three years ago, when we began calling Russia the “neo-Soviet Union,” some scoffed. They said Russia could “never go back” to those dark days, even though it had a proud KGB spy as its ruler. Now, our statement is simply conventional wisdom, and Russians themselves openly say so. Bloomburg reports:
Former Soviet dissidents criticized the condition of human rights in Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, saying their work is more dangerous than in the final decades of the communist regime.
“We live in the Soviet Union, only a modernized, improved one,” Sergei Kovalyov, 79, said at a conference in Moscow marking the 20th anniversary of the death of dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.
Human rights activists gathered to pay tribute to Sakharov’s legacy in a year when government critics have increasingly become targets of attack. The July murder of Natalya Estemirova, a human rights worker in Chechnya, was the first in a string of killings of activists in the North Caucasus region, where the government is fighting an Islamic insurgency.
While Russians today enjoy many more freedoms, there were “much fewer” killings of dissidents during the communist era, said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 82, who was forced to emigrate to the U.S. in the 1970s because of her anti-Soviet views.
Kovalyov, Alexeyeva and Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights group, will receive the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought later this week in Strasbourg. Estemirova was a member of Memorial, which documents Soviet-era repression and human rights violations.
Orlov is appealing a Moscow court ruling ordering him to retract a statement that Kremlin-backed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was to blame for Estemirova’s death. Legal pressure on government critics such as Orlov or billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail for more than six years, has replaced the Soviet gulag, said Kovalyov, who served time in prison camps for his opposition to the Soviet regime.
“The government of a country where political murders take place is always guilty,” said Kovalyov. “It turns out ‘criminals’ are behind the killings. Why do they always kill government opponents? Why do they love the authorities so much?”
Orlov criticized European and U.S. politicians, whose statements on human rights in Russia are turning into more and more of a “ritual.”
“It’s not that it’s completely impossible to work as a human rights defender,” Orlov said. “It’s just that your life is under threat every single day.”
While Alexeyeva said she found President Dmitry Medvedev “sympathetic” by comparison with Putin, she faulted the 44- year-old lawyer for not addressing concerns she brought up during two meetings with him.
Putin handpicked Medvedev to replace him as president last year because of a constitutional ban on running for a third term. Neither man has ruled out running in the 2012 elections, raising speculation of a split between Putin and his protege.
“This is a fake debate. In any country, no president can have real influence if the political and legal institutions are not functioning,” said Heidi Hautala, chair of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights. “Here we come back to the issue of free and fair elections. That could be the starting point to putting in place functioning institutions.”