Boris Altshuler: American sanctions as a lifeline for poverty-stricken Russian families with children

posted 12 Feb 2018, 05:35 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Feb 2018, 05:40 ]
12 January 2018

By Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of the Regional Non-Governmental Organisation “Right of the Child”, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, holder of the prize “Hurry to Create Wonders!” of the Human Rights Ombudsman for the Russian Federation (2017): 

American sanctions as a lifeline for poverty-stricken Russian families with children: from punishments targeted at individual oligarchs and kleptocrats to international cooperation aimed at overcoming corruption and monopolies

Question from a journalist: “Will we soon see light at the end of the tunnel of Russia’s reforms?” Expert’s answer: “We haven’t even entered the tunnel yet.”
A joke from the 1990s which is still relevant today

Baron Munchausen: “…The horse did not make it to the opposite bank, and we hurtled backwards into the wet mud… I lifted myself out of the bog by my pig-tail, together with my horse, whom I gripped tightly using my knees like a pair of tongs.”

The ultimate goal of human rights activities is to help citizens whose rights are being infringed. If this proves impossible within the framework of existing laws and circumstances, we should not let this put us off; instead, we should search for unconventional ways to solve this problem, which may include appealing to the highest political instances in our country and abroad.

The house of the Likanov family in Tver region burned down over 20 years ago, but the family and their many children still lack a permanent home and a fixed address for registration purposes. Similarly, the Yermakova-Broyko family has been living in a garage in Sochi for 10 years with multiple children. Two large families living in one 18m2 room have been in the queue for over 10 years, three large families in a one-room apartment have been on the waiting list for 27 years, and so on (Moscow). The authorities refuse to put a single mother living with four small children in a 9m2 apartment riddled with damp and mould on the waiting list (Moscow Region), and so on. A similar impasse exists in relation to the poverty of families with children and the widespread chronic malnutrition of children owing to the gap between families’ incomes and the cost of basic necessities. The State Duma even held special hearings several years ago about malnutrition of pregnant women as a cause of neonatal illness. And what has happened? Nothing.

Two and a half years ago, the Ministry of Industry and Trade developed a programme of electronic food vouchers for those living in poverty, based on the experiences of other countries around the world and also aimed at supporting the industrial farming sector. The programme was blocked by the Ministry of Agriculture, the main aim of which is to pump billions of roubles out of the budget and into the pockets of a small number of agri-oligarchs, the leading representative of whom is Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev.

Almost six years ago, Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, issued a “housing” decree (Decree No. 600 of 7 May 2012), in which he gave instructions to build more housing “for low-income citizens,” to ensure the accessibility of residential rental properties, and to take effective measures to overcome monopolies and unfair competition in the housing construction sector. Yet nothing has come of these fine words, and the man responsible for thwarting these measures is Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, the ideologist-in-chief and enforcer of extortionate mortgages at prices which have been driven up by monopolies – and also the owner of a well-appointed house in London with a view of the Thames.

The artificially high prices for life’s necessities (housing, foodstuffs, medicines) which have been driven up by cartels, the pressure exerted by monopolies on small and medium-sized businesses and the undercutting of free competition – these are the fundamental reasons for extreme poverty and intolerable living conditions of millions of Russian families with children. The scale of the problem is acknowledged at the very highest political echelons:

- in announcements by Igor Artemyev (Director of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, FAS) and in the FAS 2017 Speech, which include references to “price fixing by cartels with the involvement of state bodies”, affecting up to 80% of economic activity in a number of sectors, whereby the FAS specifically criticised the construction and pharmaceutical industries (it is evident that the prohibitions imposed by Article 178 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Restrictions on Competition”) and elsewhere are not working!);

- the instructions issued by the President of the Russian Federation on 5 August 2017 (No. 1525), for “the Russian Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, together with the Russian Ministry of the Interior, the Russian FSB and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, with the involvement of the General Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation, to develop an inter-departmental programme of measures for the identification and discontinuation of the activities of cartels and, where necessary, to establish an inter-departmental coordinating body for this purpose, by 1 October 2017”;

- the announcement of 11 September 2017 by the Specialised Commission of the Security Council of the Russian Federation on the threat posed to Russia’s economic safety by cartel price fixing, and the international cooperation required to combat this phenomenon;

- the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 21 December 2017 No. 618 “On the main priorities of state policy for the development of competition”.

Sad to say, there is little doubt that these high-level anti-corruption and anti-monopoly decrees will remain ink on paper like so many before them, since Russia lacks an instrument for ensuring their implementation. Elsewhere this role is invariably played by the law enforcement and judicial systems, but in modern-day Russia these bodies are unfortunately often “part of the problem” themselves. “The paralysis of the bodies intended to protect the law and the Constitution represents a threat to every citizen of the Russian Federation and Russia as a whole” was the title of the speech I gave at the “All-Russian Congress in Defence of Human Rights” in November 2017.

Here’s where we have to put our house in order!

An easy enough task, you’d think. After all, other countries have managed to set things up so that corrupt acts are inevitably brought to light and the liability is quite considerable. In Germany, for example, if a judge gets a telephone call attempting to influence the court’s decision and the judge doesn’t report it to the proper authorities within half an hour, the result is the judge’s disqualification for life. Indeed, in the USA and everywhere there is permanent internal departmental and, most important, interdepartmental preventive surveillance of employees — what you might call “targeted preventive operational investigatory activity”—TP OIA. I don’t know whether US citizens, when they join the police, FBI, CIA, and so on and so forth, are required to sign a voluntary consent to this violation of the principle of the inviolability of one’s personal life, i.e., to the TP OIA as applied to themselves and their closest relatives. In any case, though, they keep an efficient eye out there and punish severely. Whereas our Federal Antimonopoly Service, despite all its support from the Russian President—is still a dwarf, a pygmy, compared to the potential of analogous services in the USA and other countries.

The fact is evident: for some reason we have not been able to put our house in order despite all attempts of the highest level, despite the fact that the Russian Federation’s entire population suffers from this. As the poet said: “We have our own reckoning, our own art, / Our own carrots, our own dill. / Away! detested Russophobe.” It is no accident that it hasn’t worked, of course, but it is in accordance with Newton’s fundamental laws of mechanics, which say that it is impossible to pull oneself out of a swamp by one’s own hair—cf. the epigraph from Baron Munchausen.

Speaking of targeted employee surveillance, it is useful to recall that proposals for a cardinal improvement in the anticorruption efficiency of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Security Service [ISS] back in December 2009 were made public in Rossiiskaya gazeta by then Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, who proposed subordinating the entire ISS exclusively to the Interior Ministry’s central office—so that even the directors of that Ministry’s Main Internal Affairs Administration in Moscow and other Russian regions wouldn’t know who was watching them. This is a half-measure, of course. The point is that this is external oversight independent of any department. But even this half-measure might have cardinally reduced corruption in the police locally. However, the proposal was not supported by the Interior Ministry’s top personnel, who had no desire to “crawl out of the swamp"--again, cf. the epigraph.

Yes, an external fulcrum is needed. Therefore, foreign sanctions against super-influential Russian corruptionists and oligarch-monopolists in combination with the use of foreign Know-How in this sphere (cf. above about the call by the Russian Federation Security Council commission for international cooperation in the fight against cartels) could be a lifesaver both for impoverished families with children and for Russia as a whole. Here it is essential to note that the “Kremlin Report” recently published in the USA is not sanctions. Sanctions are still to come. And the report itself is extremely formal, contains names that deliberately do not fall into the desired categories, and “forgets” some who certainly ought to have been included on that List.

As for the utility of the sanctions, I will cite the opinion of Federation Council Chair Valentina Matvienko, who three years ago justly noted that the restrictions on shipments of foreign food to the RF would help the fatherland's agriculture. It’s just a pity that this “gift” didn’t prevent the total degradation of the countryside, didn’t help the Fatherland’s mass farmer, and its result was not a “New NEP [New Economic Policy]” filling the stores with affordable products. Why? For the usual reasons. Because monopolies reign everywhere—in the production and in the sale of food. Suffice it to say that the result of the federal laws on markets lobbied for by networker-monopolists was the fourfold reduction over the last ten years in the total area of Russia’s agricultural food markets!

Meanwhile, desperate pleas for help from impoverished families with children on housing problems, too, continue to come in to us, to other NGOs, to the federal human rights ombudsperson, to the federal children’s rights ombudsperson, to the Moscow human rights ombudsperson, to the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, and so on. And no one can help these families. Construction monopolists, among others, conspiring with the officials protecting them, continue to get wildly rich off the people’s misfortune.

In this situation, in October 2017 I wrote the attached letter of thanks to Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the main initiators of the law on sanctions. The letter’s English-language original was posted on the Internet as an attachment to a translation of an article, "On the centenary of the October Revolution: Total monopolism as the reason for national misfortune in the past and today,” which talked about the same thing as this article. That is, about how “we have yet to enter the tunnel"--cf. the epigraph.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Marian Schwartz