Monitoring Human Rights in Russia

Testimony of MICAH H. NAFTALIN, NATIONAL DIRECTOR Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) Before The HELSINKI COMMISSION OF THE U.S. CONGRESS 2255 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, D.C. 10:00 a.m. -- September 8, 1999
Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Helsinki Commissi- on: As always, it is my great pleasure to visit with you on behalf of our president, Yosef I. Abramowitz, and the entire UCSJ Board of Directors and affiliated Councils. It is my special pleasure to be in the company of my dear friend and colleague, one of the foremost former Soviet dissidents and present Russian human rights leaders, Ludmylla Alexeeva, who is chair of the prestigious Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). As you know, Mrs Alexeeva is also the president of the International Helsinki Federation. Joining me and our MHG colleagues is Dr. Leonid Stonov who, for a dozen years until 1990, was the principal spokesman in Moscow for the Refuseniks, as well as being a member of the Helsinki group. Dr Stonov, now an American citizen, directs and coordinates UCSJ's eight human rights bureaus in the FSU, including the Moscow Bureau, whose staff has been directly involved with the monitoring project that is the subject of this briefing. Dr. Stonov is here to answer questions later in the morning. At this point, Mr. Chairman, I would like to enter into the record two documents: Dr. Stonov's statement, "The Dangerous Rise of Antisemitic Terrorism in Russia - 1999;" and UCSJ's most recently updated "Chronology of Antisemitism in Russia." This remarkable, path-breaking project, involving the monitoring and report-writing efforts of relatively new and evolving human rights NGOs in 30 of Russia's provinces, began in 1996, one might well say, when Russian president Boris Yeltsin complimented the MHG on its 20th Anniversary and established a network of official human rights commissions in the provinces. His edict invited the MHG to coordinate the provincial NGOs' work. From the beginning, it was clear that the activities of the official commissions would not be adequate. So, in the spring of 1998, MHG and UCSJ began developing a joint proposal to support the independent monitoring by regional human rights NGOs, which we submitted to NED and USAID, originally in Washington but soon, in the case of USAID, in Moscow as well. During this period, I briefed you, Ambassador Courtney when you were with the White House NSC, and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Morningstar. With you two pushing, us pulling, and the AID mission in Moscow responding, we had an NED-supported pilot project beginning in July 1998 and the full project's first year beginning last October. This has truly been an enlightened partnership of the foreign policy, foreign aid and grassroots human rights NGO communities -- a Russian-American partnership; one I believe is all but unprece- dented and, I hope, a model for future activity. Mr. Chairman, you have before you as well the principal partnership between the vital interests of the Russian human rights community and the Jewish community. By operating the principal grassroots monito- ring effort across the former Soviet Union that specializes in antisemitism, fascism and other manifestations of nationalistic extremism, UCSJ provides an all important bridge between groups focusing on protecting Jews and other victims of religious persecution and those concerned with the broader human rights issues that you have just heard about in Mrs. Alexeeva's testimony. When it comes to understanding and prescribing for the development of a democratic civil society, all these perspectives must be seen by policymakers as both important and interdepen- dent. For many years, UCSJ has been documenting and warning of a gradual, inexorable and dangerous rise in antisemitic violence in the FSU, especially the Russian Federation. Last November, we concluded that the trend had taken a quantum leap when the Duma voted to support General Makashov's pogromist threats. By December, Communist Party chief Zyuganov issued a new manifesto, making antisemitism a central policy of the dominant party in the Russian parliament. We then raised the alarm that these actions constituted a signal that the previously low level of "official" antisemitism was rising which, in turn, offered official sanction and permission to those previously passive Jew-haters that they could emulate the major players on the hate-group fringes, like Russian National Unity, and that it was now safe to act out their hatred without serious fear of any consequences. The genie of antisemitic terrorism was out of the bottle. Regrettably, our analysis, our predictions began proving accurate in the spring. The two papers I have submitted for the record document this chilling phenomenon which, when combined with the general political and economic meltdown of Russia's hopes for a democra- tic civil society, raises parallels to the Weimar Republic of pre-Hitler Germany that has long engaged UCSJ's attention and, more recently, that of Russian and Western analysts alike. As Mrs. Alexeeva states, human rights and policy attention inevita- bly proceeds from sound and systematic monitoring. Human rights monitoring by NGOs is for human rights advocates what intelligen- ce gathering by governmental organs is for foreign policymakers. Regrettably, the foreign policy establishment - officials and academics - generally fail to take into account systematically the signals provided by the NGO monitors when considering what they view as vital national interests. This is a grievous error. Prior to this year, human rights monitoring in Russia has been largely confined to the efforts of Moscow-based organizations. This report therefore breaks important new ground, especially when noting Mrs. Alexeeva's trenchant observation that many of the provinces covered in this report are of the size of many European countries. For the first time, we are able to document activities across much of Russia. This concludes that the use of torture is getting worse, especially in the pre-trial, investiga- tive isolation wards. Torture and pre-trial incarceration are the refuge of incompetent and corrupt policing and investigating. We can observe the totally inadequate procedures governing arrest, detention and access to independent legal counsel. We see a near-total breakdown in public confidence in, and fear of, the police, with abuses supported by the prosecutors and largely ignored by the courts. The report documents the serious deterio- ration in the condition of children, and of prisoners in the jails. The specter of the maladministration of psychiatry is returning from its Soviet roots. Finally, as I will discuss in a few moments, the paranoic use of secrecy as a pretext by the FSB and the Procurator General to suppress free speech and impose draconian controls and surveillance on private and commercial electronic communications is an extremely worrisome return to Soviet-style behavior. Over the past dozen years, I have observed that human rights is often seen, dismisssively, as a "feel good" dimension of foreign policy, e.g., politically correct rhetoric like exhorting abusive nations while the real business of national defense or trade is conducted. On the contrary, every day for 30 years, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), a "grassroots" human rights NGO, has been directly involved, on the ground, in a number of related issues, each of which has a direct bearing on how one might measure the states of the former Soviet Union as being a not law-based criminal enterprise; willing to cover up extreme threats to the environmental safety of its own people and its neighbors; capable and willing to eavesdrop on personal and commercial telephone, fax, email and internet communications; incapable or unwilling, for example, to protect its Jewish citizens from dangerously escalating pogromist threats by Communist Party leaders in the parliament and antisemitic hate crimes by nationalistic extremists. In other words, we provide information to measure the acceptability of Russia, Ukraine, et al as reliable security, environmental or economic partners that also are expected to observe their international human rights and other treaty commitments, and we take and promote effective steps that encourage needed reforms. These are hardly mere "feel good" concerns. Indeed, they are concerns that the U.S. and other Western governments have often ignored to their peril. The following highlight the principal concerns affecting America's, and Russians' vital national interests that UCSJ is tracking through its own monitoring network and in cooperation with the Moscow Helsinki Group. 1. UCSJ's extensive reports provide an important and useful database concerning antisemitism and extremism. Last November - long before the international media tuned in, and even before most Russian Jewish leaders became alarmed -- our monitoring and analysis permitted us to forecast the escalation of anti-Jewish violence that has erupted this past spring and summer, with synagogue and Jewish theater bombings and aborted bombings, attempted or actual cemetery desecrations, arsons and murders. UCSJ's assessment is now supported, inter alia, by the respected Russian newspaper, Kommersant Daily that has openly raised the question of "Jewish pogroms in Moscow" and a looming "antisemitic epidemic" in advance of the upcoming elections. As the provincial monitoring report documents, antisemitic hate crimes, and the lack of effective official response, is by no means the most important threat to Russian society. Endemic corruption and lawlessness clearly rank at the top. The tracking of antisemitism is, however, an exceedingly valuable bellwether for measuring the health of the democratic infrastructure of a country. It is an integral component of the human rights/rule of law/civil society mix. Of course, the report does document anti-Jewish hate crimes and provocations, and the collegiality of fascist organizations and local officials.

2. UCSJ is a principal monitor of religious persecution generally and was an early advocate in opposition to the discriminatory law on religion enacted by the Russian Duma on September 26, 1997. While we doubted from the beginning the assurances by the government and the Russian Orthodox Church that traditional religions would not be attacked even though the law permits great discrimination, we argued as well that the greatest danger would lie in its implementation in the vast provinces. This report confirms that fear, with the worst treatment being suffered by those Christian churches deemed most competitive to Russian Orthodoxy, including the Roman Catholics and such Protestant confessions as Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. 3. The KGB-successor FSB has joined forces with the Navy and the prosecutors to declare war on environmental safety monitors. In recent years they have jailed and then prosecuted for treason Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, who respectively alerted the world to the present dangers of radiation poisoning of the North and Japanese seas from submerged nuclear submarines. After long incarcerations, Pasko was acquitted by a military court that charged the FSB with falsifying documents, while Nikitin has been subjected to multiple trials in which the courts have found the evidence against him unconvincing -- his documents were all in the public domain - and the charges unconstitutionally based either on secret or ex post facto directives. Nonetheless, the courts have been unwilling to acquit, and so return this clearly political case repeatedly for further tries by the FSB and the prosecutors. Now, the FSB has gone farther - it has blocked the work of Vladimir Soyfer, head of an Academy of Sciences research lab that actually monitors the dangerous output of radiation leakage from submerged nuclear submarines. These incidents have been documented as incipient disasters comparable to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown. UCSJ is organizing a campaign, including the scientific and environmental communities, on the general subject and on behalf of Soyfer. Of course, these cases all raise important human rights violations. But they also raise vital questions of national security concerning public health and environmental safety - matters rendered immune from censorship by the Russian Constitution. The key security question raised by the NGO monitoring is this: What are the Navy, FSB and Procurator General trying to cover up, and why? Are the safety issues so grave as to negate Constitutional requirements of disclosure? Or, is there involved some massive and corrupt money laundering scheme? We don't know. But it does seem extremely improper for the U.S. or other Western governments to offer clean-up assistan- ce without demanding the release of the messengers. This would seem to be a clear case for imposing economic linkage to human rights reforms when national security is also at stake.
4. The Russian FSB, and its counterpart in Ukraine, have developed and are implementing the unconstitutional capability to monitor without court approval telephone centers, cell phone operators and, most recently, the email and internet providers who, at their own expense, must provide the FSB access to track, intercept and interrupt the internet connection of any client of that provider. We are now planning to join with the St. Peters- burg human rights organization, Citizens Watch, to mount a campaign to protect the security and confidentiality of personal and commercial communications. But the broader policy question is, whose interests do such draconian domestic surveillance serve? National security is the official justification, but three decades of advocacy for the so-called "secrecy" Refuseniks justifies our skepticism. Political blackmail has been documen- ted. What more? These are not simply "feel good" issues. They are of vital importance not only to individuals in the FSU, but to all nations that seek to engage in bilateral arrangements for military security, environmental protection, economic and banking activity - all, indeed, who have an interest in promoting a law-based society in countries that have overpowering economic poverty but remain nuclear super-powers and who are led, in the case of Russia, by a former KGB officer and FSB head - a man President Yeltsin has endorsed as his heir apparent. In the past, Prime Minister Putin has defended the prosecution of Nikitin; but he was considered an ally of the reform-minded former mayor of St. Petersburg. His KGB/FSB background gives the Prime Minister a great advantage - for good or ill. The jury is out; the burden of proof is his. When there is massive poverty in an economy stripped of billions - perhaps a trillion dollars by criminals and corrupt officials from top to bottom, and a corrupt and totalitarian justice system, there can be no hope of a civil society, democratic leadership, or a reliable international partner. Nor should Russia's leadership reasonably expect continued economic assistance, by governments, international banks, or private enterprise unless and until it takes credible steps toward serious reform. The economic principle that certain institutions are "too important to fail" has too long been applied to the personalities of Russia's nominally pro-Western leadership. It is long past the time when principles rather than political personalities should govern U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and other successor states in the FSU, and that linkage between reform and requested support should be negotiated. We therefore believe it is time to focus more foreign aid on supporting grassroots monitoring and targeting important support directly at the infrastructure for a democratic civil society. To this end, as well, we especially encourage more systematic bi-lateral interchanges on the issues that promote human rights reforms and urge the Russian government to meet regularly and directly with the human rights leadership. Only in these ways can there develop a credible atmosphere of transparency and accounta- bility to the public. We applaud our government for its support of this groundbreaking grassroots human rights monitoring effort, and we thank you and your colleagues, and your magnificent professional staff, Mr. Chairman, for providing the ever-respon- sive venue of the Helsinki Commission. Thank You.