President Putin pays tribute to Liudmila Alekseeva

27 July 2017

By Simon Cosgrove

Reflections on the week of 
15- 21 July 2017

Meetings between individuals who encapsulate, each in their own way, different aspects of a turbulent period of a country's social and political life are always fascinating. This past week, on 20 July, when Liudmila Alekseeva, the doyenne of Russia’s human rights defenders, marked her 90th birthday, she was visited by President Vladimir Putin. The two sat opposite each other in Liudmila Alekseeva’s living room in her apartment on the Old Arbat and an account of their conversation was duly published on the official Kremlin website. Video of the two in conversation was broadcast on the nation's main TV channels. The President came with gifts: a bouquet of flowers and an engraving of a view of the town in Crimea where Alekseeva was born, Evpatoria, as well as a decorative plate with a picture of the tower that is now the main building Moscow State University where she had been a student. Given Alekseeva's well-known opposition to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the gift of the engraving would seem a particularly pointed one, although according to the published account of the dialogue it was the picture of Moscow State University that moved Alekseeva to comment, saying she had not actually been a student in the landmark tower, although she had helped build it

In many ways Liudmila Alekseeva represents in her person the history of the Russian human rights movement, its distinctive characteristics, successes and failures. She represents the dogged determination of the Soviet-era dissidents who placed adherence to the principles of the rule of law and the priority of the rights of the individual above their own personal security and well-being. Having returned to Russia after 16 years in exile in the USA in 1993, in 1996 she became chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group (founded in 1976, it had been suppressed in 1982), a position she has held since. It was a time when, inspired by the post-Soviet optimism of the 1990s, the human rights community in Russia entered a new phase of legal existence and rapid expansion. All too soon, however, from 2000 a new set of political and social realities emerged. Since 2000, Vladimir Putin's 
policies have seen the progressive emasculation of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions and a range of new restrictions imposed on civil society. The human rights community in particular found itself under threat, its capacity to work effectively reduced and its influence undermined. 

For his part, then, Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer turned president, represents the resurgent strength of a traditional and in many respects ruthless political authoritarianism, drawing both on a new-found populism and, for many years at least, a buoyant economy. On 20 July, the two, sitting opposite each other in Alekseeva’s living room, executed a verbal pas de deux that for some was fascinating, for others excruciating, to watch.

Putin's visit, agreed in advance with the presidential administration, was illustrative of Liudmila Alekseeva's commitment to engagement with the authorities as a prerequisite for human rights work, her readiness to enter dialogue with officialdom, no matter how difficult relations between civil society (and especially the human rights community) and the authorities. It is a position with which some disagree and for which Alekseeva has often been criticized. But it is one from which she has rarely wavered. 

Engagement is an approach laden with serious risk and, sadly, this meeting, even on such an occasion as Alekseeva's 90th birthday, proved no exception. The encounter had a vicious sting in the tail: not long after it ended, a video began circulating on the internet that appeared to show Alekseeva kissing Putin’s hands. Alekseeva was quick to denounce the short video as a fake. While the Kremlin refrained from comment,  Alekseeva herself with reason pointed out that the episode had not been included in the official broadcasts of the meeting, which it surely would have been had the incident actually taken place. 

Yet engagement also has positive outcomes. The meeting was widely broadcast on state TV channels, and, seventeen years after first assuming office as President, millions of viewers could see and hear Vladimir Putin, in unambiguous language, paying tribute to Liudmila Alekseeva, the country's senior human rights defender, on her 90th birthday: "I am grateful to you," Putin said, "for all you have done over these many, many years for such a huge number of people in our country, people who love you dearly and are grateful to you for the life that you live in the service of others. Thank you very much for this." 

More than that, the President publicly acknowledged the importance of human rights: "You followed your heart’s calling and devoted yourself to serving society and defending human rights and freedoms with firmness and determination. Your particular moral strength and faithfulness to your convictions have enabled you to make a significant contribution to human rights activity and to strengthening the institutions of democracy and civic society.” 

In addition, in her dialogue with President Putin, Alekseeva succeeded in communicating to the audience beyond the room some of the key tenets of her human rights work, not least her commitment to treating individuals as individuals, and with the respect due to them as such, no matter what formal position, or opinions, they may hold - even a President who holds views at such profound variance to her own. "You know, I think about you too," she told President Putin. "Sometimes, when I cannot sleep, which happens rarely, for despite my venerable years, I sleep like a babe. My conscience is clear. [...] And I think about various people, about you too. After all, it is no easy job to be President.” 

Alekseeva also struck a blow against the kind of collectivist populism which Putin has himself encouraged. In an exchange over Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when Putin suggested similarities between Alekseeva and the nationalist writer, Alekseeva was quick to point out that in contrast to Solzhenitsyn her concern was not the 'narod' - the collective Russian noun for 'the people' that Putin had used - but 'liudi', in other words people as individuals. She brusquely said that her work was with ‘one person at a time’: ‘If you save one person,’ she commented, ‘it is such a joy.’  And in typical fashion, Alekseeva used the occasion to draw from Putin a somewhat reluctant commitment to release one individual - former senator Igor Izmestyev - from prison. 

Indeed, it may not be too fanciful to believe that that at least some of the millions of television viewers, on hearing Vladimir Putin's fulsome praise for Liudmila Alekseeva and human rights (his statements about the need to “defend human rights and freedoms with firmness and determination” and “strengthen the institutions of democracy and civic society”), may have been inspired to wonder what indeed is the current state of human rights in the Russian Federation? A look back at a number of events from the past week (such as those appended) may give them pause for thought: 

On the night of 18 July, acrid gas was sprayed into the family home of outspoken journalist Yulia Latynina in a vicious attack, typical of many suffered by independent journalists and civil society activists, that seek to intimidate individuals and restrict freedom of expression. 

On 17 July the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ordered the disbanding of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious organization on grounds of alleged extremism, despite the fact that freedom of conscience is enshrined in the Constitution and Russia's international obligations.

The former Yukos security chief Aleksei Pichugin, whose trials have been found by the European Court of Human Rights to have failed to meet the criteria for fair trials, made an application for a pardon, having served 14 years in prison. Pichugin’s bid for a pardon was turned down on 21 July.

On 18 July, a Moscow court ordered Aleksei Navalny and two co-defendants to pay 2.1m roubles in damages to a lumber company in what many observers consider to be the continuation of a politically-motivated prosecution intended to prevent Navalny taking part in the 2018 presidential elections.  

On 20 July a Moscow court found Stanislav Zimovets, who had taken part in an anti-corruption protest on 26 March, guilty of assaulting a police officer and sentenced him to 2 1/2 years in prison, despite the fact that, according to reports, the demonstrations were peaceful and the violence largely initiated by the police. No police officers have been prosecuted for unlawful violence against members of the public - or for giving false testimony about alleged unlawful violence against them. 

When Ramzan Kadyrov in an interview with a US TV channel called for the removal of gay people "to purify the [nation’s] blood", on 17 July the Kremlin announced that recent anti-gay comments by Ramzan Kadyrov had been “taken out of context.” 

On 20 July, the Federal Tax Service was reported to have filed a lawsuit to collect 3bn roubles from Bill Browder and a partner in a tax evasion case, whereas there is abundant evidence that this prosecution is politically motivated. Those responsible for the tax fraud identified by whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pre-trial detention, have yet to be brought to justice.  

On 18 July a court in The Hague ruled Russia must pay 5.4m euros in damages for the 2013 seizure of Greenpeace's ship Arctic Sunrise. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement to the effect that the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration had no jurisdiction in the Arctic Sunrise case. 

And finally, the week saw families mourning the third anniversary of the loss of the 298 passengers and crew in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. In 2015 Russia had vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to establish an international tribunal to investigate the case. Since then a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team has stated that the rocket responsible for downing the plane had been smuggled in from Russia and fired from territory at that time controlled by Russian-backed rebels. The BBC reports that, "If the suspects are in Russia, few believe they will be extradited" to Holland where any future trials will be held under Dutch law. In an open letter of 12 July to President Putin, U.S-born aviation attorney Jerome Skinner, who represents a group of 33 next-of-kin of victims, wrote: "My clients have waited three years, Mr. Putin. There is still no accountability.... You stand as the only man who can set this right."