Advisory Council (International)

On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of Rights in Russia's Advisory Council (International).

Halya Coynash: Russia’s new offensive against civil society has grave implications for Ukrainian political prisoners

posted 23 Oct 2016, 23:29 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 23 Oct 2016, 23:33 ]

24 October 2016

By Halya Coynash

Russia has removed almost all independent rights activists from the Civic Monitoring Committees [ONK] which are allowed to visit remand and convicted prisoners. Those now entrusted to oversee observance of human rights in Moscow penitentiary institutions, for example, will include Dmitry Komnov, who is on the Magnitsky List and under US sanctions for his role in the death of Heritage Foundation lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The move is disastrous, not least for Ukrainian political prisoners. It has often been the ONK who first provided information about Ukrainians whom Russia had effectively abducted, and their visits have been invaluable for monitoring how Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and other political prisoners are being treated.

The new list was posted on the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation website. There can be no question that this is not deliberate sabotage. As well as removing many renowned rights activists, the Civic Chamber has also appointed far too few members. The sheer workload on each member will also seriously reduce the level of civic monitoring. [Read more]

Robert van Voren: Number of political prisoners in Russia continues to increase

posted 16 Jul 2016, 01:28 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Jul 2016, 01:36 ]

29 June 2016 

Source: Press Release, Human Rights Initiative for the former USSR

The number of political prisoners in Russia continues to increase, according to the Netherlands-based Human Rights Initiative for the former USSR. The new List of Political Prisoners in Russia, prepared by the New Chronicle of Current Events, released today and containing data as of June 1, 2016, contains the names of 277 people, which is a new "record" number - the previous List of December 10, 2015 included the names of 256 persons. [see attachment]

The dynamics of the List reflects the continuous process of ongoing repression in the Russian Federation. Over the last six months 59 new criminal cases were initiated, or about 10 cases every month. 

There is a stable proportion between the various categories of the repressed people. Political opposition accounts for around one third of all the repressed, 40 percent are persecuted for their religious beliefs, and about 8 percent are bloggers and civil society activists. At the same time, the number of the repressed Crimean Tatars is doubled, in fact, just for belonging to this ethnic group regardless of the charges involved.

The geography of repression also remains stable: the residents of Moscow and the Moscow region account for approximately a quarter of all repressed.

Altogether this reflects the systematic nature of repression, and the fact that despite the apparent randomness, it is carried out according to the plan, thoroughly coordinated by the central government. 

The constant increase in the number of repressed indicates that the government continues to use repression as one of the main methods of governance. It is obvious that in the absence of more active opposition to the repressive policy, more and more people in Russia will be subject to reprisals for the use of their rights and freedoms. 

For more information: Robert van Voren, +31-651534123; 
The Human Rights Initiative for the former USSR, a continuation of the Vladimir Bukovsky Foundation that supported the human rights movement in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, resumed its activities in 2013 in light of the increased repression in Russia. 

Attachments: Press Release; List of Political Prisoners

Jens Siegert: Does Russian Civil Society Exist Today?

posted 26 Apr 2016, 12:25 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Apr 2016, 12:31 ]

25 April 2016

Author: Jens Siegert

Are we back at point zero or even below it?

Fundamental rights have been limited, step by step, ever since Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. A systematic policy of repression of rights has been observable since at least 2003, but this roll back on rights took a principal turn after the Moscow protests of 2011-2012. Putin changed Russia from an increasingly autocratic state without a special ideology, to a state that once again demands ideological loyalty from its citizens. [Read more via Intersection]

Source: Jens Siegert, 'Does Russian Civil Society Exist Today?,' Intersection, 25 April 2016

Jens Siegert: After Putin

posted 16 Mar 2016, 07:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Mar 2016, 07:51 ]

17 February 2016

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

The economic crisis has yet to loosen its grip on Russia. Real income in the country has declined by more than 15% since 2014. The rouble, in terms of US dollars or Euros, is now worth only half of what it was in late 2014. Over the same period average income has gone down from around 800 USD a month to less than 400 USD. In purely statistical terms this is a slump from the position of an emerging nation looking up to that of a poor nation looking down.

Yet there is no sign of a political crisis. Putin's grip on power seems firmer than ever. Sociologists at the Levada Center claim to detect “a possibility of dissatisfaction” in a year or two. And that’s about it. Not a trace of unrest, let alone a palace coup or a popular uprising.

At the same time the political elites around the Kremlin are very much on edge. The time of the great carve-up is over: the largest chunks were divided up among the elite, although a few things were also shared with the nation as a whole. The Duma election this coming September and the presidential election in two years’ time are casting their shadows. In spite of every protective measure – virtually total control over political parties and mass media as well as the abolition of independent election monitoring – there is a palpable fear that the people’s dissatisfaction will spill over at the ballot box. That is why any kind of independent opposition, indeed any sign of independence in the country, is being eagerly watched, intimidated and kept to a minimum, whether it is real (which is quite rare) or imaginary (which seems to be quite common).

In its relations with the outside world the country continues to follow the mantra: “You have insulted us, so now we will make your life as difficult as we can wherever we can: at least in this way we will force you to take us seriously.” So far, this has been quite effective. Prime Minister Medvedev’s speech last month at the security conference in Munich, with its references to a “new cold war”, sounded like a revenant of Putin’s famous 2007 speech. However, back then the West still reacted with a degree of incredulity, asserting with concern and resignation that the situation was unlikely to change for quite some time.

Following the futile protests against vote-rigging in the winter of 2011 and 2012 and Putin’s re-election in March 2012, the following joke circulated in Russia: ‘Pushkin is our one and only, Putin is our now and forever.’ There’s little doubt that in 2018 Putin will stand again, although recently it has been rumoured in Moscow that he might try to agree a new modus vivendi with the West, more favourable to Russia because of Crimea, Syria and refugees, so that he can step down as a winner, leaving his successor, whoever that might be, to deal with all the problems. So is it worth discussing what (or rather, who) will succeed Putin and how this (or he) might come about?

A quick glance into the recent past provides the answer. Eleven months ago – not even a year, although hardly anyone remembers it now – President Putin suddenly and entirely uncharacteristically disappeared from public view. In the first few days after his disappearance the state-owned television channels continued to broadcast footage of meetings he had allegedly attended with various personages, but it quickly became apparent that these were pre-recorded. Soon the entire country, together with vast swathes of the rest of the world, was engaged in speculation over the real reason behind his withdrawal from public life, and the possible implications of a potential illness, wearying of duties or even death. Even I joined in. Ten days later, Putin reappeared. The Kremlin acted as though nothing had happened, but that could not and cannot disguise the fact that the entire structure would topple without Putin.

The Kremlin and its allies (even those in the West) have been trying for the past 15 years to make us believe that life would be (even) worse without Putin, regardless of what or who were to follow him, because that’s just what Russia and its people are like, and that everyone would end up longing for the days when he was in power. One should never say never, of course, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Personally, I prefer not to engage in such idle speculations, since there is very little analytical (added) value beyond the immediate present in wondering whether Defence Minister Schoigu is planning a military coup, Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin intends to usher in an ultra-nationalistic regime and appoint the muddle-headed eurasian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin as prime minister, or Prime Minister Medvedev, having finally emerged from under Putin’s thumb, will let his liberal side show and navigate Russia back into democratic waters.

I would therefore prefer to trace out in more detail some of the underlying issues at play, prefacing my attempts with a few general remarks.

It is a well-known fact, proven by countless German electoral campaigns throughout history, that new governments are (almost) never elected into power; instead, old governments are (almost) always removed from office, and politicians have to screw things up quite substantially before they get kicked out. Germany is an extremely conservative country at heart, but the same is true for Russia, if not more so given that acclimatisation to continuous and substantial state screw-ups has cultivated a sense of resignation. A single crisis (which we have had for a long time now in the form of an economic crisis) is therefore not enough for the winds of political change to start to blow in Russia. Several genuine crises are needed, but also – and more importantly – a leader who represents a genuine alternative. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that a serious contender for this role has not yet been found.

A main – or the main – concern of the Kremlin, and one which swallows a great deal of its resources, is ensuring that such a contender does not emerge in the first place. Political supremacy has traditionally been secured by three different tools, namely political legitimacy demonstrated through procedures and institutions, economic wellbeing and violence. In the first decade of the 21st century, Putin successfully espoused a balanced mixture of all three. Although democratic legitimacy slipped and state violence intensified over time, this shift in emphasis was cushioned by the constant rise in prosperity.

As the economy took a nosedive from 2008/2009 onwards, however, and democratic legitimacy was tarnished yet further as a result of the “castling” tactics (Putin-Medvedev-Putin), particularly among well-educated and urban sectors of the public, Putin ramped up the level of violence both inside and outside the country, to date with success. Violence within the country serves to consolidate power directly, whereas violence outside its borders – together with the propaganda blared out to accompany it – provides populist approval to paper over the lack of democratic legitimacy.

So far these are all conventional domination techniques, executed with definite skill - and fortune. A few glances at Soviet history quickly make it clear that Putin's predecessors executed them just as well – and even so, there came a point where it was no longer enough. There always had to be something more to maintain long-term rule, something that could be referred to as "maintaining the Zeitgeist". To put it another way, political sovereigns require constant modernisation, if they don't want to prop themselves up exclusively with violence (and that is something no one has tried in the Soviet Union/Russia since Stalin). They really do need to reinvent themselves in certain ways from time to time. Putin has succeeded at this so far. But now, as promised, we turn to the predecessors.

I'll start with Leonid Brezhnev, as for one thing he took active steps to come to power – as opposed to after the death of his predecessor – and for another, he ruled with an astonishing lack of violence compared to Soviet leaders before him. Perhaps it was just that that was the secret to his success. After civil war, Stalinist terror, war, advanced Stalinist terror and the Khrushchevian mixture of thawing relations and a Cold War that kept hotting up, what many people in the Soviet Union wanted above all was peace, a certain consistency and a modest income – the main thing they wanted was to not starve anymore.

Brezhnev delivered this with such skill that even today, the 1970s remains the golden decade in the memories of many people in Russia. Peace turned out so perfectly that the country was soon settled in its proverbial zastoi (stagnation). By the mid-1980s people in the Soviet Union were getting more and more fed up with it. They wanted action again. And they got it, as three dead general secretaries in quick succession (and catastrophically low oil prices) made it clear the system wasn't viable.

Mikhail Gorbachev embodied the Zeitgeist, a comparatively young new leader at the age of 54, but more importantly, he was unusually dynamic and very modern in his communicativeness. Gorbachev tried to open up the fossilised old state (glasnost) and to rebuild it (perestroika). In hindsight this task seems like a Gordian knot that no one was in a position to unpick (and no one had the time). To cut it and rush through the changes like Alexander the Great would have unleashed forces beyond his control. Gorbachev tried something more cautious. But even his careful glasnost robbed the state – a state hinging on (total) control - of its ability to steer the course of the transformation. The country spiralled out of the control of its rulers.

Today Mikhail Gorbachev is considered by many people in Russia a traitor to the state because he only deployed violence against those seeking freedom very tentatively. But at the same time, he couldn't make a firm decision to clamp down on them.

His successor Boris Yeltsin, who became president in 1991 in probably the freest elections in Russian history, although he too had been a party apparatchik was the first to unleash freedom. He probably did this less out of conviction than to maintain power. On the other hand, he did belong (like Gorbachev) to Russia’s so-called ‘1960s generation’, who were children during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, teenagers during the war and pushed for the thaw after Stalin’s death. Many of the first wave of dissidents belonged to this generation, too.

Many people in Russia consider the 1990s to have been a period of chaos and the collapse of the state (state propaganda sparks this feeling and fosters it). Indeed, Yeltsin’s promise of freedom and participation, admittedly born of necessity more than conviction (the necessity of remaining in power, but also the necessity of holding the country and the economy together), mutated very quickly into a mixture of arbitrariness and carelessness. The state withdrew not only from its citizens’ private lives but from their lives altogether, ceasing to provide the basic services it was its duty to provide. As a result, the two basic elements of democracy – freedom and the protection of individual rights – became thoroughly discredited in Russia and have remained so to this day.

The pendulum swung back and a new ruler appeared: Putin. He began by promising the best of both worlds: to strengthen the state again without it becoming fossilised. Putin fulfilled two needs initially: the need for calm and order as well as the need for a break from change. In other words, he succeeded in making (necessary) changes feel like stability. The economic situation, especially the rapidly rising oil prices, helped enormously here. Then the economy flagged, and the attempt at introducing new changes – Medvedev’s modernisation – failed.

Putin then adopted a policy which has often been successful in Russia (as in other countries): mobilising the nation against enemies at home and abroad. In this context, it hardly matters whether the enemies actually exist. So far this has been working well, first with Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and now with Syria, to judge by the support expressed for him in opinion polls, at least.

But if this brief outline is correct in describing the way that, in Russian history, the pendulum swings back and forth between freedom and control, then the restless forces which always seek to counteract an overbearing, inflexible state should soon become stronger in Russia once again. This is another reason why I do not agree with the idea that everything could get worse after Putin.

Even Putin himself hints at this. The war in Syria is the first in which Russia is taking part in the ‘Western’ style: bombs released remotely and dropped from planes with minimal risk for Russian soldiers, no ground forces. So it would seem that even the Russian state under Putin can no longer afford, or doesn’t want, to be too reckless with its citizens’ lives. It doesn’t matter whether this is because people have, in fact, changed more fundamentally in the last 30 years after all (with many of them genuinely becoming citizens), or just because the state no longer has as many people at its disposal, or because the war in Afghanistan is still fresh in people’s minds. Whoever succeeds Putin will have to bear these factors in mind too.

Translated by Helen Corbett, Joanne Reynolds, Julia Sherwood, Suzanne Eade Roberts

Robert van Voren: Appeal by former Soviet political prisoners to the Dutch public

posted 15 Mar 2016, 06:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 15 Mar 2016, 06:33 ]

Robert van Voren (pictured left), chair of the Foundation to Preserve the History of Maidan and a member of the advisory council of Rights in Russia, provides here the text of an 'Appeal to the Dutch public' by more than 80 former Soviet political prisoners, including 23 Russian former political prisoners, urging Dutch voters to vote in favour of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the upcoming referendum to be held in the Netherlands on 6 April 2016. The signatories, who include Aleksandr Podrabinek, also a member of Rights in Russia's advisory council, write: "We, former political prisoners of the communist concentration camps, already at an early age believed in European values and paid for them with our freedom, and some of us with their lives. Today we are concerned about the national selfishness and everyday pragmatism that are slowly eroding the basic values of European civilization." Below we republish the press release and the Appeal in full for the attention of our readers.



March 11, 09.00 Kyiv time 

More than eighty former political prisoners from former Soviet republics have issued an appeal to the Dutch population to vote in favor of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The former political prisoners, from six former Soviet republics, who together served more than 500 years of imprisonment, call upon the Dutch to vote “yes” and help Ukraine to make the change from “survival to self-expression, from authoritarian norms to democratic values,” which, according to the signatories, is particularly difficult “under conditions of acute geopolitical threat from Russia. ”

On April 6, the Dutch population will be able to vote in a referendum to decide whether to support the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine or not. Even though the referendum is an advisory one, the Dutch government has indicated it will abide by the outcome. 

Among the signatories are, apart from 45 Ukrainians, also 23 Russian former political prisoners, as well as 6 Lithuanians, 3 Georgians, 2 Armenians, one Estonian and one Belarusian. Also three former Polish political prisoners signed, including the well-known dissident leader Adam Michnik. The longest term served is 31 years of imprisonment. 

The signatories express their concern for the current threat against European norms and values, which in their view is clearly coming from Putin’s regime, and conclude that “national selfishness and everyday pragmatism … are slowly eroding the basic values of European civilization. Without restoring one’s ability to distinguish truth from deceit, it becomes impossible to distinguish good from evil. (…) Evil will reach you everywhere and will make you choose: either to surrender to evil, or to stop it. To a certain degree this is the choice that stands before you during the upcoming referendum.” 

For more information: 
  • Iosif Zizzels, Co-President of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine Telephone: +380-504195412 e-mail 
  • Robert van Voren, Chairman of the Foundation to Preserve the History of Maidan Telephone: +31-651534123 e-mail
Appeal to the Dutch public 

March 11, 2016 
At the end of the 1990s, the famous European diplomat Romano Prodi said: "We expect Ukraine to give us a clear signal of where it wants to be - with EU or with Russia. We will respect any decision".

Since then, twice, in 2004 and in 2013-14, Ukraine gave strong signals of its desire to integrate into Europe. Those signals were so strong, that they raised tough questions about the identity of Europe itself and its values.

Why does The Netherlands then doubt today?

One of the reasons can be found in Ukraine itself. It turned out that to fight for the values is much easier than to live in accordance with them. Probably everyone knows it from his own experience. To move the focus from survival to self-expression, from authoritarian norms to democratic values, under conditions of acute geopolitical threat from Russia is difficult. Europe is beginning to experience similar difficulties, while facing the challenge of a stream of refugees.

So, Ukraine needs time, and it would be a shame if it would be deprived of the chance to acquire European values with a Dutch "No".

The second reason is related to you, to the citizens of the European Community, and to your ability to find the truth. In the present circumstances, this task has at least three aspects.

The Putin regime has made its choice and is trying to restore the imperial idea of a strong Russia. Russia has indeed greatness and strength, but Putin is looking for it in the wrong place. Actually he is destroying Russia’s greatness, because he relies on aggression, military occupation of other countries, violations of the international order, disinformation and hate speech. Therefore Putin is not Russia, and neither were Brezhnev, Stalin and Lenin before him.

Ukraine is not able to compete with the propaganda capacities of Russia, and therefore inevitably becomes a victim of false interpretations. In this sense, Ukraine depends on you, on your ability to distinguish truth from lie. However, at stake is not only the security of Ukraine. Failure to decode the propaganda construction of Putin regime seriously undermines the security of Europe in its entirety. Only the blind cannot see how great the danger is today.

We, former political prisoners of the communist concentration camps, already at an early age believed in European values and paid for them with our freedom, and some of us with their lives. Today we are concerned about the national selfishness and everyday pragmatism that are slowly eroding the basic values of European civilization.

Without restoring one’s ability to distinguish truth from deceit, it becomes impossible to distinguish good from evil.

We, fighters against Communist regimes, we know that it is impossible to hide from evil in self-isolation. Evil will reach you everywhere and will make you choose: either to surrender to evil, or to stop it.

To a certain degree this is the choice that stands before you during the upcoming referendum.

Signed by:
(name, country of origin and current residence if different, number of years in imprisonment)

Antoniuk Zinovy (Ukraine – 11 years)
Arutyunyan Vardan (Armenia – 8 years)
Ayrikyan Paruyr (Armenia – 17 years)
Babich Sergey (Ukraine – 27,5 years)
Bolonkin Alexander (Russia/USA – 15 years)
Brodsky Vladimir (Russia/Israel – 1,5 years)
Buival Valery (Belarus)
Bukovsky Vladimir (Russia/Great Britain - 12 years)
Cherniavskaya-Naboka Inna (Ukraine – 3 years)
Chornomaz Bogdan (Ukraine – 3 years)
Davydov Viktor (Russia – 4 years)
Dudaeva Alla (Russia – Sweden)
Dzabiradze Vahtan (Georgia – 3,5 years)
Dzhemilev Mustafa (Ukraine – 15 years)
Geiko (Matusevich) Olga (Ukraine – 6 years)
Genke Nikolai (Russia – 4 years)
Glebovich Petr (Poland)
Gluzman Semyon (Ukraine – 10 years)
Gorbal Mykola (Ukraine – 16 years)
Gorin Bogdan (Ukraine – 3 years)
Gorin Olga (Ukraine – 6 years)
Gviniashvili Tariel (Georgia – 4 years)
Idiogov Ahiad (Russia/France)
Ivlyushkin Nikolai (Russia- 8 years)
Kadyrov Sinaver (Ukraine – 3 years)
Kalynets Igor (Ukraine - 9 years)
Karavansky Sviatoslav (Ukraine/USA – 31 years)
Khmara Stepan (Ukraine – 7 years)
Khmelevskaya Yadviga (Poland)
Kravchenko Valeriy (Ukraine – 4 years)
Kudyukin Pavel (Russia - 1 year)
Kuksa Victor (Ukraine – 2 years)
Kulchynsky Mykola (Ukraine – 3 years)
Kutsenko Grigory (Ukraine – 4 years)
Kuznetsov Eduard (Russia/Israel – 14 years)
Lifshits Vladimir (Russia/Israel – 1 year)
Lokhvitskaya Larisa (Ukraine – 3 years)
Lukyanenko Levko (Ukraine – 27 years)
Makowiychuk Gregory (Ukraine – 3 years)
Manannikov Aleksei (Russia – 3 years)
Marmus Mykola (Ukraine – 8 years)
Marmus Vladimir (Ukraine – 9 years)
Marynovych Myroslav (Ukraine – 10 years)
Matusevich Mykola (Ukraine – 10 years)
Matviyuk Kuzma (Ukraine – 4 years)
Mazur Dmytro (Ukraine – 9 years)
Michalko Myhaylo (Ukraine – 3 years)
Mikhnik Adam (Poland – 5 years)
Mikitko Jaromir (Ukraine – 5 years)
Miliyavski Leonid (Ukraine – 3 years)
Niklus Mart (Estonia – 16 years)
Orlov Yuri (Russia – 7 years)
Ovsienko Vasyl (Ukraine – 13,5 years)
Pavlov Vadim (Ukraine – 3 years)
Pečeliūnas Saulius (Lithuania – 7 years)
Podrabinek Alexander (Russia – 5,5 years)
Podrabinek Kirill (Russia – 5,5 years)
Popadyuk Zoryan (Ukraine – 15 years)
Popov Kirill (Russia – 1.5 years)
Povilionis Vidmantas (Lithuania – 2 years)
Protsenko Pavel (Russia – 8 months)
Reznikov Alexey (Ukraine – 7 years)
Rivkin Michael (Russia/Israel – 5 years)
Rudenko Raisa (Ukraine – 6,5 years)
Rusin Ivan (Ukraine/USA – 7 years)
Sadunaite Nijole (Lithuania – 6 years)
Senkiv Vladimir (Ukraine - 7 years)
Shevchenko Oles (Ukraine – 7 years)
Skobov Alexander (Russia – 7,5 years)
Slobodyan Mykola (Ukraine – 5 years)
Smirnov Alexey (Russia – 5 years)
Smogytel Vadim (Ukraine – 3 years)
Sofyanik Oleg (Ukraine – 2 years)
Soselia Guram (Georgia)
Superfin Gabriel (Ukraine/Germany, 7 years)
Terleckas Antanas (Lithuania – 13 years)
Timofeev Lev (Russia – 2 years)
Tuckus Andrius (Lithuania)
Vilkas Leonardas (Lithuania)
Virchenko Nina (Ukraine - 6 years)
Yakubivsky Myhaylo (Ukraine – 1 year)
Zissels Joseph (Ukraine – 6 years)

Jens Siegert: On Taboos, Glasnost and Anti-glasnost

posted 16 Feb 2016, 08:07 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Feb 2016, 08:10 ]

4 February 2016

Source: Russia Blog (Heinrich Boell Foundation) 

The first Russian words I learnt (after ‘da’, ‘net’, ‘na zdorovye’ and ‘Sputnik’) were perestroika and glasnost – ‘restructuring’ and ‘openness’. Then, in the second half of the 1980s, I didn’t know a single word of Russian and I only knew as much about Russia, or the Soviet Union, as anybody in the West who was interested in politics and engaged, but without any special connection to Russia, so not a lot. As a result I thought (and I think today that I was part of the mainstream with this idea) that perestroika was more important than glasnost. That was of course absurd. Of course, the prerequisite for the reconstruction was the new openness: the slow step by step lifting of taboos, at first rather more guided from above than demanded from below. However, restructuring was necessary and precisely for that reason some of the leadership of the Soviet Union, together with the new general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm, had decided to implement it.

What was originally an attempt to break (or at least to circumvent) the inner resistance against changes inside the Soviet state apparatus with help from the political decisions of excluded people (not yet ‘society’) quickly got out of control. Every taboo abolished by the state (which predominated at first) or broken by the people (as was increasingly the case later) at that time – now already thirty years ago – generated significant public resonance. There was a quite clear overwhelming desire for knowledge (‘we want to know’ was one of the most used slogans in 1987/88 in the now possible demonstrations and meetings beyond party control), and a somewhat more emotionally expressed desire for truth.

In contrast in Russia today there are many truths, but to recognize them scarcely changes anything. While thirty years ago the things coming to light were greedily absorbed by people, there was literally a great thirst for truth and knowledge, today even the most scandalous information about the powerful in the country fizzles out with nearly no effect. Then people wanted to talk about the past, which until then had been hushed up and concealed, even, and above all, about everything which hurt, about the black stains of the past: namely about the (Stalinist) terror, about the corruption in the power-elite, and – because it was then current and blazing – about the war in Afghanistan and its dead (Soviet soldiers). Today this desire is nearly extinguished. Hardly anyone wants to know any more bad things about the past, even their own. On the contrary a widely spread need for positive self-assurance, fuelled by the state, prevails. Patriotism, President Putin says, is the ‘only possible national idea’ for Russia and he earns great approval for this.

This reversal didn’t happen suddenly. From the beginning it was a part of the strengthening of the ‘power vertical’ declared by Putin on his inauguration as president, which involved putting the genie of openness back into the bottle. Only by doing this, he argued, could the country be protected from disintegration. Bit by bit, more and more in Russia was once again declared secret, not permitted, and dangerous for the state. Bit by bit, at first slowly and then ever faster, the doors to the archives were closed again and the taboos returned. The state was once again the initiator and the driver. But once more this reversal also met a desire in the population. The state (and the people) were thereby not only, and perhaps not even as a first priority, concerned with the need to conceal once more what was bad in the past, but rather to give the past overall a new positive meaning. However, this does not happen through intensive consideration, and thus a thoughtful and emotional comprehension, of past crimes, but instead by relativising them and thus, in time, suppressing them. The monsters were banned. But they remain.

This is a two-way process. Alongside the resurrection of old taboos, numerous new ones are also emerging. The old ones mostly have something to do with admittedly traditional, yet not in the least old-fashioned, techniques of mastery/control, namely above all with regard to the secret services. The new should not just safeguard the leadership, but serve rather more to conceal the contradiction between, on the one hand, public welfare as maintained by the Kremlin and, on the other hand, the shameless money grabbing by the new state elite and their political incompetence.

Some of the taboos are established by law or will be set into law. Sometimes the new laws are targeted, like for example the so-called foreign agents law. Often it isn’t at all clear at the beginning what purpose a new law has or should have. But the laws are – as they call it in the military – for dual use, so they can be used in one way (according to the constitution) as well as in other ways (unlawfully). A good example is the “law on the fight against extremist activities”. From the outset it has been applied on the border between terrorism and political extremism. The state prosecution and courts classify (almost) everything that stands in opposition to the Kremlin as extremist. How far the Kremlin had moved in that direction up until a few years ago is difficult to say; often it only became apparent what a new law could be used for through its practical application. After the protest winter of 2011/2012 more than 30 new laws have been created, the main purpose of which has been from the beginning to restrict the political opposition.

The limits of what is allowed – the limits of taboos – have thus been made more restrictive since 2000. Taboos need to be understood, though. Given that the leadership of the state continues to insist that Russia is a democratic state founded on the rule of law (except for some particularities associated with ‘Russianness’ or a mythical ‘Russian national character') and given that – according to surveys, at least – the majority of people in the country continue to believe that this is the case, many taboos can simply not be named as such. No one in high office can suddenly announce that person A is allowed to get rich through corruption while person B is not allowed to protest about it, although everyone (despite the overwhelming propaganda of the last few years) knows it’s true.

But people watch carefully, of course, and listen to exactly what is and isn’t allowed. This knowledge is part of surviving (and prospering or otherwise). Knowledge needs to be learnt. Viewed in this way, people in Russia are attentive pupils.

The first week in December last year was particularly instructive in this respect. Two events in that week stood out (and not only for their links to taboos). First, Alexei Navalny, the politician and anti-corruption campaigner, released a film about the corrupt business affairs of the sons of Yuri Chaika, the Prosecutor General of Russia, and their connections with one of the most brutal criminal gangs in recent Russian history. A few days later, the opposition activist Ildar Dadin – the first person convicted under a recently passed new law – was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for ‘repeat’ offences: having picketed without permission and been fined small sums for doing so.

Several days after the video was made public, Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, commented on Chaika, saying that nothing in the video was new or interesting for the Kremlin. In short: the Kremlin knows that people steal and commit murders, but doesn’t mind as long as it’s done by its own people, the right people. However, as the Russian proverb says, “Everything is for your friends, and the law is for your enemies”, and anyone who – like Ildar Dadin – exercises their constitutional right to protest against state decisions (including the decision not to investigate certain crimes) risks being arrested.

The most conspicuous aspect of the start of December was the fact that these two events came at the same time. Either of them on its own would not have been anything in particular. There were rumours that the head of the State Investigative Committee (a sort of Russian FBI), Alexander Bastrykin had connections to a ‘Russian mafia’ in Spain. According to information published by Wikileaks, the suspicion is that the Russian state employs organised crime groups for its ‘dirty work’. The head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, barely conceals his calls for opposition politicians to be shot. The children of many high-placed politicians, such as the daughter of defence minister Sergei Shoigu, amass great fortunes at a young age or are in managerial positions in state-owned companies. Recently, even President Putin himself was associated with systematic corruption in a US Congress investigative report. The Kremlin responds with a shrug and the judiciary mostly takes no notice of these allegations at all.

On the other hand, the number of political prosecutions and political prisoners is increasing. According to data collected by human rights organisations (e.g. by Memorial or by the Union for Solidarity with Political Prisoners), at least 59 people are currently being held for political reasons in Russian prisons and camps. Approximately 24 more people are in addition being investigated by the Russian justice system for political reasons.

To a large extent, people in Russia know all this, but protest is limited to a small group of the population. Most people prefer to take barely any notice of this sort of information, or if they do, it doesn’t lead to action because it merely confirms for them what everyone knows anyway: yes, there are people who steal and commit murder. Yes, public prosecutors, politicians, police officers and civil servants do this. Yes, they do it in association with real bandits. No, we can’t do anything about it.

President Putin assumed office 16 years ago with the express purpose, as I have said above, of creating a strong, vertically integrated state which would be able to withstand the great centrifugal forces of the 1990s following the break-up of the Soviet Union. He correctly identified a concern which was shared by a broad swathe of the population. To achieve this, the administrative apparatus needed to be brought under control and made more effective (one of Putin’s favourite words). Corruption was to be combatted and the regional elites were to be made subordinate to Moscow’s will again. At the same time, democratic freedoms and citizens’ rights to participate in politics were gradually cut back beyond recognition. Most people accepted this, believing that the end justified the means. The outcome, though, is a fragmented state ruled by a profoundly corrupt bureaucracy – a state which, after its peak in the first decade of the 21st century, is now disintegrating again.

In as far as the law was applied in the 1990s and at least in some areas (especially in civil and commercial law) in the first Putin years (that is, in a rather sluggish manner), it has increasingly been replaced by what Russians call ‘zhit’ po ponyatiyam’ (which means something like ‘living by a code of honour’). That means the unwritten, but totally fixed, rules of the Russian criminal world. They have a tight hold on the country.

It almost looks as though the country has travelled back in time to the mid-1980s. 

Translated by Jo Anston and Suzanne Eade Roberts

Andreas Umland: The Flaws of the Putinversteher’s Russian Hermeneutics (extract)

posted 17 Jan 2016, 22:49 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Jan 2016, 22:53 ]

17 January 2016

By Andreas Umland

Below is an extract from: Andreas Umland, 'The Flaws of the Putinversteher’s Russian Hermeneutics. How the escapist axioms of Western apologies of Kremlin policies distort our understanding of the origins and motives of Russia’s current domestic and foreign behavior,' Intersection, 17 January 2017

"[...] The leitmotif of today’s Kremlin administration is not true patriotism, but tactical pragmatism, characterized by a degree of cynical expedience, barely comprehensible to many Western Europeans. To sustain its regime, this unprincipled approach adopts for its purposes both nationalistic ideas, and internationalist slogans. Without a second thought, Putin’s regime proclaims fundamental religious, or profoundly Enlightenment-related, motives. It often resorts to uncompromising moralism in its arguments, but does not hesitate to openly demonstrate cold-blooded amorality in its actions. Depending on the situation, it refers either to universal human values, or particularly Russian national interests. At times it advocates objective historical truths, and on other occasions, defends the right to selective interpretations of Soviet and tsarist history. It sees no major contradiction between Russia’s former desire for accession to NATO, and its demonization of the Alliance today. Contemporary European Union standards can serve both as a role model for Russia, and as a manifestation of the abhorrent degradation of the West. Russia positions itself as a European nation on some occasions, and as a Eurasian civilization on others. Sometimes it presents itself as a profoundly Orthodox, and other times as a modern progressive country. The choice depends on which image is beneficial in a given situation, what is most appropriate at a given moment, or what best suits the expectations of the audience. [...]"

Evgen Zaharov: The Minsk Agreement format should change

posted 6 Jan 2016, 00:31 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jan 2016, 00:44 ]

5 January 2016

By Evgen Zaharov

Source: Human Rights in Ukraine

At the end of November a Bundestag deputy told me quite directly and pragmatically that we have nothing besides the Minsk Agreement. If Ukraine refuses to implement it, it will be left alone with its opponent, without European support. Peace is the most important thing. It’s therefore necessary to implement them, regardless of all concerns and difficulties.

On 30 December, the Presidents of Ukraine, Russia and France and Germany’s Chancellor had a telephone conversation in which they extended the Minsk Agreement to 2016. And the Foreign Minister of Germany which is now also the Chair of the OSCE in 2016 has just expressed satisfaction with the observance of the ceasefire in Donbas over recent days. “This gives us the hope that the sides to the conflict will also discuss other difficult steps which need to be taken in order to fully implement the Minsk Agreement, with the will to find constructive decisions which will make it possible to overcome the crisis and finally defuse the conflict”, Frank-Walter Steinmeyer’s statement reads.

Most regrettably our European partners don’t want to acknowledge the real situation, namely that it is entirely useless to demand unilateral implementation of the Minsk Agreement by Ukraine if the Russian side doesn’t fulfil them. Moreover, Ukraine can also not implement the Minsk Agreement simply because Russia is obstructing this. [Read more]

Jens Siegert: The (Economic) Crisis and Protest in Russia

posted 28 Dec 2015, 12:20 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Dec 2015, 12:23 ]

15 December 2015

By Jens Siegert

Source: Heinrich Boell Russia Blog

Two months ago I wondered (here) why, in spite of the economic crisis, Russia has not yet seen any major social protest. As most other commentators, I predicted that it would not happen in the foreseeable future.

My answer to the self-posed question was, to cut a long story short, as follows: “the TV set has so far prevailed over the fridge”. The propaganda of pride has, at least so far, been more effective than the fear of, or anger over, the lowering of the living standards. Let me now elaborate on why this is the case and how long this state of affairs is likely to last.

But first we need to take another look at Putin’s propaganda. It consists of several distinct, partly intertwined but also partly contradictory, ideological components. I will briefly mention three of them, which strike me as crucial.

The first is the idea of a humiliated and, additionally, divided nation. Humiliated allegedly by the West at the time of Russia’s weakness following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Divided because, in the Kremlin’s reading, some 50 million ethnic Russians (or rather, people who, from the Moscow perspective, are ethnically Russian and also feel Russian) have found themselves outside the Russian Federation, the new Russian “fatherland”. For many years the new Russian state did not care much for these ‘fellow countrymen’, as they are referred to in current Russian usage. More recently, however, the Kremlin has discovered them as a political resource. Putin complains about the Russians being “the greatest divided nation” in the world. Experience has shown that their alleged plight in the countries of their residence and the discrimination they have suffered due to alleged and, often genuine, “Russophobia” can be exploited to create a distraction in Russia.

The second component is geopolitics. The Kremlin presents the world exclusively in terms of a geopolitical struggle for survival and influence. Thus all other countries are potentially or actually hostile. In response to this the nation has to unite to make sure it doesn’t perish in this Darwinian world of the survival of the fittest as it is in a permanent state of war (an extended interpretation of this term, in which every political confrontation and every difference of interest equals “war” serves as further justification). And so anyone who upsets or threatens this unity and criticizes the state is defined as belonging to a “fifth column” – whereby some who belong to it are merely “useful idiots” while others are “paid agents” – playing on the side of the enemy.

The third component might be referred to as neotraditionalism. It is the largely, though not purely rhetorical, attempt to opt out of modernity, perceived and reviled as western. The Kremlin rejects and opposes nearly everything that represents a tolerant and open society as un-Russian and incompatible with the country’s traditions.

The propaganda defines and presents these three components predominantly as anti-Western (or, more precisely, anti-US). Hand in hand with this goes the striving to make any internal stratification within Russian society appear illegitimate. While this mix certainly involves a sizeable dose of totalitarianism, Russia is still some way from being a wholly totalitarian state.

Of course, there is nothing new about anti-Western propaganda in post-Soviet Russia. Waves of anti-Western, especially anti-American mobilization, mostly generated by state propaganda, have occurred regularly since as early as the late 1990s (this, and the following facts are based on figures from a talk given by Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, at the “Green Russia Forum”, organized by Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow in early December, 2015).

It all started in 1999 when Serbian cities were bombed by NATO, probably preventing genocide and/or the total expulsion of the Albanian population of Kosovo. It happened again in 2003 at the outbreak of the Iraq war (on that occasion, France and Germany were exempted, since they did not join the war effort), and then again in 2008 in the context of the brief war with Georgia. On those occasions, however, public disapproval of the West and of Western actions did not last long. Quite soon opinion polls would again show that most Russians generally had a positive attitude to the US and EU countries.

Roughly since 2007 (the key event being Vladimir Putin’s famous Munich speech), however, approval rates of the West, also outside the context of the crises (of relationship) have fallen noticeably short of previous highs. The downward trend has further intensified since the 2012-2013 winter of protest, which saw a political rollback against democratic opposition inside the country and the West as the external political enemy, and it increased again after the Maidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This can be ascribed to the fact that state propaganda has continued almost unabated ever since then, compared to previous crises, when it stopped quite soon after their resolution. The other reason might be a long-term cumulative effect.

What is interesting in this context is that the Levada Center has simultaneously noted a continuous and so far almost unbroken basic identification with the West. North America and the EU continue to serve as the main “utopia of a normal life”. At the same time, however, polls reflect an “awareness” that Russia is not the West’s equal. As a result, the Western concept of life is negated and denounced and the Russians' own inadequacy is projected onto it. In psychological terms this may be a kind of defence mechanism.

So far, as I have said earlier, the TV set has edged out the fridge. Or to put it differently: world power beats prosperity. But how long can this state last once the state runs out of money? There is probably no theoretical answer to this question. There are, however, quite a few indications that in years to come the going could get tougher for the Kremlin.

Of course, those in charge are also aware of this and they have tried to take preventive action. This has included a constant stream of new repressive laws (which, exceptionally, I won’t go into in this piece), enacted just in case an emergency should arise. From the Kremlin’s point of view, it would be preferable if an emergency (i.e. fresh mass protests by whoever and for whatever reason) could be avoided altogether. But it may be difficult to prevent. Low oil prices – which, at least for the moment appear to be longer term – have deprived the state of its business model. It will now have to find a new one. So far the Russian state has been financing itself without, as it were, relying on its citizens. Most of its income has come from sales of oil, natural gas and other raw materials. Taxes and dues levied directly on the population have been correspondingly low.

However, now that the revenue from raw materials has started to decline, the state needs to compensate for the loss. As things stand, this can only take the form of higher taxes and levies. Yet nobody in the world likes higher taxes and levies without a sound and generally accepted justification from the state. Comprehensive and well-functioning public services, such as in the Scandinavian countries, could provide such a justification. But in Russia this is out of the question. On the contrary: experience and a realistic assessment have instilled in the population a widespread conviction that the state doesn’t really care about its people. Hence the propaganda along the lines of “things may be bad in this country but they aren’t much better elsewhere, plus they are alien and hostile elsewhere.” This has worked so far but may not work forever.

That is why the Kremlin has been cautiously tapping new sources of income. It has been working its way from outside in, so to speak, trying to avoid linking the tax and levy hikes to the crisis of its business model. The launch of its first trial balloon has been quite successful. Since the beginning of this year a new monthly fee per square metre for so-called cardinal refurbishment of houses has been imposed on all flat owners (i.e. the majority of people in Russia) in many regions, including Moscow. In Moscow this can easily amount to half of the utility costs. And although some people have tried to resist the new payment, the protests have been tentative and isolated. Some people have simply not paid and they have got away with it – so far. This is another sign that the state feels rather apprehensive about interventions of this kind.

The next step hasn’t gone down so well. Since mid-November a new road tax on lorries has been introduced. Lorries weighing 10 tonnes or more have to pay for each kilometre driven on federal roads under a new taxation system charmingly named Plato. Long-distance lorry drivers across the country have organised rallies in protest. Retailers have warned of price increases and 70 per cent of people in an opinion poll were opposed to Plato. The fact that the son of one of the two Rotenberg brothers, billionaire friends of Vladimir Putin, was granted the licence to collect the tax, hasn’t helped either. In this case, too, the state has so far been rather restrained, making small concessions and obviously betting that people will get used to the measure. An aggravating factor for the state is that the lorry drivers don’t exactly fit the image of a smug, Westernized middle class that can readily be accused of Western, un-Russian behaviour.

The next blow will follow soon. In fact, it has already become law and once in force it will also affect owners of flats, houses, as well as land. As of 1 January 2016 the property tax is going up steeply; in some, probably not rare, extreme cases it will be increased tenfold. Admittedly, the so-called “technical inventory value” of properties, on which the taxation is based, has been way below market value. Yet what will cause unrest is not just the hike in absolute terms but rather the enormous increase accompanied by decreasing wages and property prices.

Additionally, two groups of people who have formed the backbone of the regime, have been affected by the budget crisis: since 2015 the salaries of state employees (“biudzhetniki” in Russian, i.e. all those whose salaries are covered by the state budget, such as teachers or the police) and soldiers are no longer been index-linked, i.e. they have gone up at a slower rate than the rate of inflation. Nor does the 2016 budget include any provisions for index linking. Since the early 2000s all these people, who could hitherto always rely on special privileges in exchange for their loyalty, have for the first time had to accept losses in real income.

Leading economists including those working for the ministries in the economy sector, have by now come to regard tax increases as unavoidable and have been saying so publicly. An income tax might even have a certain popular appeal provided that it is based on a progressive rate, rising proportionally with income, since many regard the current 13 per cent flat rate, which has been in place since 2001, as unfair. A redistribution of the tax burden alone, however, will not have much impact, unless income tax is increased across the board.

However, it is the constantly growing hole in the state pensions fund that constitutes a much more serious problem for the state. This has been thrown out of kilter by the pension age, which, as a legacy of the Soviet days, remains very low compared to other countries (55 for women, 60 for men) and has been accompanied by a simultaneous, rapid decrease in the number of people who are fit to work (some 600,000 to 800,000 individuals annually) and an otherwise welcome, if very modest, increase in life expectancy. The state has sufficient reserves to subsidise the pension office in 2016 and maybe in 2017. But at that point, at the very latest, money will get tight unless the economy improves, something that many economists still hope for but nobody is really counting on.

But that is precisely how long the money will have to last. The next Duma election is scheduled for September 2016 and the next presidential election for March 2018. In spite of President Putin’s extremely high personal approval rate, neither of these is a no-brainer. Everyone remembers the 2011 Duma election, the 2012 presidential election and the protests that followed. For that reason alone there has to be as little open cheating as possible. But that is costly. That is why the state has to pull together all its available resources to scramble past these two milestones. The bills will have to be paid later. But nobody is planning that far at this stage. And besides, the screws can always be tightened even further after the election.

This is another reason why we are not likely to see any large-scale protest – social or political – before 2018. The tried and tested methods should be sufficient to quell smaller-scale unrest similar to the current mini-uprising of lorry drivers.

Translated by Julia Sherwood

Andreas Umland: 'Towards a Regime Change in Russia: A Brief Prognosis'

posted 21 Dec 2015, 01:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Dec 2015, 01:23 ]

'Putin’s regime is on the verge of a deep transmutation or even full-scale transition. There are now so many things simultaneously going wrong in Russian domestic and foreign affairs that the current system will sooner rather than later break down, if it does not substantially adapt, fundamentally transform and eventually transit to a different regime, in the near future. The question is merely whether the revolution will come from below or from above. The perception of a rapid accumulation of political, economic and social problems seems now to be spreading in Russia’s elite. So far the power vertical holds. My guess is that the current system, however, will not any longer exist by 2019, and either collapse or be replaced via guided transition, by liberal reformers, from above – perhaps, even much earlier. Two of the many recent news leading me to this conclusion: 'Над пропастью во лжи. 5 фактов, которые переврал Путин на пресс-конференции' || The Insider – ; 'Выступление Председателя правления Сбербанка Германа Грефа на 383-м заседании Совета Федерации' || Совет Федерации'

    - Andreas Umland, Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation

Source: Andreas Umland, 'Towards a Regime Change in Russia: A Brief Prognosis,' Andreas Umland: Comments and Links on Contemporary Russian and World Affairs, 18 December 2015

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