The Kremlin has been pursuing an increasingly hardline policy toward autonomous and opposition-minded agencies. The law on the liability for participating or organizing protests has been made more punitive; opposition leaders have been subjected to apartment searches; the authorities have made the first arrests of the so-called 'provocateurs'. Now the Kremlin is flexing its muscle by imposing new regulations on the Presidential Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights. Officials apparently believe that government-affiliated body has failed Putin's test of loyalty. The chasm between government and society is seemingly becoming unbridgeable. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the Center of Political Technologies analytics department, describes the intricacies of the relationship between Russian human rights advocates and the government.
The Kremlin has apparently decided to eliminate the last government agency capable of expressing views contrary to those of the authorities, namely, the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights. In the past 6 months 17 out of its 40 original members have either resigned or announced their intentions to resign from their positions. If just three more members submit their resignations, the Council will be unable to reach a quorum and will consequently be disbanded. This is not to the Kremlin’s advantage, given the current efforts to revamp the Council under new procedures that vest the power of final personnel decisions in President Vladimir Putin. As a result of these procedures, the Council may end up another neutered agency whose role is to advocate for Kremlin policies.
This organization was established in 2002, with Ella Pamfilova, a prominent democratic politician of the 1990s, as its chairman. At that time, the Council was called a Committee, and its primary function was the protection of human rights in three key areas: immigration, criminal justice, and developing juvenile justice. The Council addressed only a handful of topical political issues, such as the crackdown on the independently NTV media company and the expulsion of “oligarchs” Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky from the country. At the time, these developments did not elicit great outcry from opposition forces. The liberal camp was learning to play by the new, barely articulated rules that essentially consisted of the outlines of what was acceptable according to the Kremlin and signposts that were to be respected. In any case, the democratic opposition, as represented by the Union of Rightist Forces and the Yabloko party, half-heartedly accepted these rules, as they were harboring hopes of being elected to the Duma. In the end, their hopes never materialized. The Council did have a rather ambitious agenda. Pamfilova said that at the time, the commission had the leverage to be heard by authorities and the capability to bring about “change in the stagnant human rights situation in Russia." The Council’s had lofty dreams, but the skeptical media was already writing that the Kremlin was “going to make civil society march to the beat of its drum.”
Russia’s most recent political history and the period of Vladimir Putin’s rule in particular shows that the number of government-affiliated humans rights agencies grow with the number of government-perpetrated human rights violations. A case in point: in 2004, the Beslan hostage crisis was followed by the considerable strengthening of party laws, election laws, and laws on non-profit organization. At this time, the Human Rights Commission was promoted to the status of a Presidential Council. Authorities also established the Public Chamber, an assembly designed to represent civil society organizations “of the right kind” which was meant to certify, by the very fact of the Chamber’s existence, that civil society in Russia is alive and well.
At that time, the Putin regime was in dire need of legitimizing its highly questionable actions that curtailed democratic institutions. In between 2004 and 2006 direct elections of governors were abolished in favor of appointments; that Duma representation was shifted to being fully proportional instead of the mixed proportional-majoritarian composition that had allowed for the election of candidates independent of political parties; and that autonomous non-profit organizations were put under government control while also becoming the targets of full-on informational warfare. Those days saw the controversial story of the fabled ‘spy stone’ discovered by FSB operatives and found to be a transmitter used by a British diplomat to transfer important information. Such stories were used by the state-controlled media to smear international non-profits as “infrastructural components of the Western spy network.” The public discourse posited non-profits as virtually the most dangerous threat to national security, instruments of Western influence used to undermine the democratic regime of Vladimir Putin.
In those difficult times, the Human Rights Council was already by and large a decorative institution. However, it was able to achieve milestones in certain areas. For instance, it was involved in the revision of the nonprofit law, softening some of its provisions. A few days ago, Ella Pamfilova told the BBC, “We managed to achieve quite a number of things: in 2002, we succeeded in preventing a compulsory return of refugees to Chechnya, and we managed to liberalize the draconian law on migration. When [after the fall of the USSR] many people found themselves in former Soviet republics without [Russian] citizenship, our organization helped over 1.5 million people to obtain it. These are only some of the things we accomplished.”
“No one was undermining our decisions. I invited whomever I wanted to join the Council. Putin fully consented to the list of candidates that I complied. At that time, we did not receive any suggestions or objections or even comments from the presidential administration,” Pamfilova said. Granted, at the time, these topics were peripheral to the Kremlin and not politically-loaded, while the evidence of Putin’s cooperation with the Council helped improve the President’s public image. On the other hand, the Council could not boast of much success on issues that were more heavily politicized. In these instances, the Council acted as an advocacy group for the authorities. Thus, for example, Pamfilova never pointed to the political motivations behind the Yukos case (even though she did advocate for the release of Svetlana Bakhmina from prison). Pamfilova also defended Putin against accusations of complicity in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. In 2005, when Pamfilova was fighting against the adoption of the law on non-profit organizations, she called the legislation “flawed” and issued appeals to the President as her “last resort.” By 2006, her opinion had changed. “I do not support this hysteria. Every issue should be approached without emotion, on the basis of facts. In this spirit, I submit that there is no trend toward shutting down NGOs whatsoever,” Pamfilova told Kommersant.
The chasm between the Kremlin and the opposition is becoming unbridgeable
During Putin’s second presidential term, when the vertical power structure was firmly in place, the importance of the Council declined. Like civil society itself, it became dormant. Meetings with the President, who was viewed by many as a “good tsar” surrounded by “evil courtiers” were in vogue then. It became fashionable for every government agency to have its own advisory council of civil society representatives. These councils were rarely productive but were frequently used to legitimize privileges for their member. Thus, for example, “patriotic” filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, who used to serve as the chair of the advisory council at the Ministry of Defense, took advantage of his volunteer position to claim the right to use traffic perks given to government officials.
As soon as any of these advisory councils ventured beyond the unspoken boundaries of acceptable political discourse, they were promptly subjected to “cleansing.” This was the case with the advisory council of the Chief Interior Directorate of the Moscow Police Department. This council once included a broad array of prominent public figures, such as Radio Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Alexey Venediktov, Novaya Gazeta Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov, Deputy General Director of the NTV network Tatiana Mitkova, leaders of Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Valery Borshchev, Dean of the Higher School of Economics Yaroslav Kuzminov, and others. With these members, the Council was vocal on issues that were inconvenient for the government, such as the violations by Moscow police officers during opposition rallies. Currently, Venediktov is the last remaining member of those mentioned above, while Olga Kostina, a witness in the Khodorkovsky trial on the prosecution side, has become the Council's new chair.
The Presidential Human Rights Council is probably next in line for a similar kind of purge. During Medvedev’s presidency, the Council attempted to convey messages that were unpleasant for authorities to hear. It pointed out the responsibility of the investigators and the conflict of interests in the investigation of the Magnitsky case, and raised the issue of the political aspects of the Yukos case. The Presidential Council also issued its recommendations for Putin to veto the recently adopted bill that imposes more severe penalties n the participants and organizers of unsanctioned protest rallies. In response, Putin harshly criticized Mikhail Fedotov, the current head of the Council, for having made his opinion public.
A total of 17 Council members have either resigned or announced their intentions to resign from their positions. Nothing like that has been seen before in the entirety of the organization’s history. In December 2011, Irina Yasina and Svetlana Sorokina quit in protest of the large-scale fraud in the Duma elections (or, rather, in protest of the authorities' inaction in response). In May 2012, eleven more Council members including Fyodor Lukyanov, Ida Kuklina, Aleksandr Auzan, Svetlana Gannushkina, Yury Dzhibladze, Tatyana Maleva, Dmitry Oreshkin, Emil Pain, Elena Panfilova, Leonid Radzikhovsky, and Alexey Simonov all submitted their resignations.
Finally, it has recently come out that Igor Yurgens, Vice President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, has also left the Council. He was immediately accused by the Kremlin of quitting because of hurt feelings over not having been appointed commissioner on the rights of the business community. His not being appointed is a separate topic altogether that can be read about here. Instead of implementing structural reforms, eliminating the kind of perversion of justice demonstrated in the Yukos case, and reducing administrative pressure on business, authorities prefer to keep churning out agencies and institutions that are supposed to solve problems through case-by-case interventions – that is, counter to all the applicable laws and state operating processes. Even with these ghost institutions on hand, authorities continue thorough personnel selections to identify “the right people” to manage such agencies. Yurgens’ vocal advocacy of a second presidential term for Dmitry Medvedev got him into trouble; now, with his hopes crushed, Yurgens is apparently facing political oblivion. No one wants to see him close to the government.
Following the resignation of 17 Council members, Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Council, became the target of an all-out media offensive. The Kremlin apparently wasn’t amused by Fedotov’s attempts to exercise his legitimate authority by submitting a list of candidates for the vacancies in the Council to the President that included opposition leaders and sympathizers. According to Vedomosti, Fedotov’s list included writer Grigory Chkhartishvili; Pyotr Shkumatov, coordinator of the Blue Buckets society protesting officials’ abuse of their traffic privileges; physician Elizaveta Glinka; TV anchor Leonid Parfyonov; and journalist Yury Saprykin. As a result, Fedotov was once again publicly derided for improper conduct, this time on the pages of Izvestia. Meanwhile, the presidential administration promptly amended the procedure for Council formation, significantly reducing the power ceded to its chair.
The Kremlin finds it objectionable that the chief of the Council has the exclusive authority to submit candidates for presidential purview. In the words of an anonymous source cited by Izvestia, “it is unfathomable how it was that Fedotov managed to push through the present rules and procedures of the Council. Why did he usurp the right to submit candidates to the President?”
Virtually within hours after the article’s appearance in Izvestia, an anonymous source in the Kremlin told Interfax that the presidential administration had proposed a new procedure for filling vacancies in the Human Rights Council. First, candidates should be nominated by interested non-governmental organizations. Then, they should be voted on online, with the top three online election winners being considered finalists. After this, their names should be submitted for the President’s consideration. This new procedure was precisely the reason why Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a legendary figure in Russian human rights, resigned from the council. In her interview with television network Dozhd, Alexeyeva said “I pictured myself surrounded by people who are going to be completely alien to me, who will not be interested in developing civil society or human rights, and in fact, whose interests will be quite the opposite, that is, the suffocation of civil society. What is the purpose of my sitting on this council? To serve as a smokescreen?” Speaking of the NGOs that were now supposed to nominate candidates to the Council, Alexeyeva noted sarcastically that Ozero, the notorious dacha co-op society that includes Putin and his cronies, is also an NGO and would presumably be able to nominate candidates.
Over the past two weeks, Fedotov has continued his futile struggle to preserve the old procedure for Council formation (most likely with someone’s political support in the Kremlin), and faced active opposition on the part of “democracy” advocates. Despite his efforts, the new procedure for vetting prospective Council members through online voting has been approved.
The Kremlin is now trying to play the game of instituting democratic procedures on the Internet – a medium where it has no obvious advantage over its opponents. The presidential administration intends to use the voting procedure to select candidates that can be nominated by any non-governmental organization. This leads to a host of questions: how will the Kremlin try to “cleanse” the list of contenders of undesirables at the initial stage? What will happen if government critics will end up being Internet voter favorites? Will Putin dare to disregard the results of the voting in making his final decision if the people he wants to appoint to the Council lose the Internet race?
For the opposition, it is worth taking advantage of this opportunity by setting up its own, alternative Internet voting. Fedotov, along with his entire Council, proved to be a competent critic of the authorities by staying within the limits of “political correctness” and not engaging in personal assessments of political leaders. By attempting to supplant authoritative public figures with more loyal cadres, authorities are shooting themselves in the foot. In its attempts to appoint loyalists, the government is trying to hold sway over the portion of society that has not yet been alienated by the regime. The outcome of online voting for prospective Council members will be presented to the public as an example of the government functioning from the bottom up. It is clear that the new composition of the Council will represent the interests of the “the constructive majority” rather than “foreign agents,” which is how the government views virtually all of its opponents. Thus, the future Council will most likely have considerably less authority while the chasm between the Kremlin and the opposition becomes unbridgeable.