Testimonies before the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress by Ambassador William Courtney, Ludmilla Alexeeva, Micah Naftalin, and Leonid Stonov (September 15, 1999).

Briefing on Human Rights in Russia

Opening Comments by the Moderator Ambassador William H. Courtney, Senior Advisor, CSCE September 8, 1999
-- On behalf of the Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Representative Chris Smith and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, I welcome all of you to today's briefing on the human rights situation in Russia's regions. -- A major purpose of the Commission, which was created by the Congress in 1976, is to monitor and encourage compliance by participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe with their commitments under the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Charter of Paris of 1990, and other OSCE documents. The Commission holds hearings and briefings, and conducts other activities, to carry out its purposes. -- Today we will learn more about the human rights situation in thirty of Russia's regions. It is described in an insightful and painsta- kingly-prepared report by the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSG).
-- This report, part of a project funded by USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, is unprecedented in scope and detail of coverage of human rights across Russia. And it is only the beginning. The project will involve many more regions in the future. -- Today we are honored to hear from Ludmilla Alekseyeva and Micah Naftalin. They are well known by the Commission. Both testified on January 15 at our hearing, "Whither Human Rights in Russia." -- At that hearing Chairman Smith noted that the decline in Russia's economic fortunes was accompanied by disturbing developments in the area of human rights and civil liberties. Chairman Smith called special attention to the 1977 Religion Law, a trial of the Jehovah's Witness organization in Moscow, the case of environmen- tal activist Aleksandr Nikitin, and a rash of anti-Semitic statements made by communist members of the Duma. -- One witness at the hearing, David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, noted the helplessness of the average Russian in a criminalized state where "... the individual is deprived utterly of the protection of the law in the face of a criminal business Mafia." -- Corruption is also a burning issue. The story on the front page of today's Washington Post suggests the levels to which it is penetrating. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the eminent economist and scholar of Russia Anders Aslund wrote that the country "suffers not from too free a market, but from corruption thriving on excessive regulations erected by a large and pervasive state." -- Aslund estimated that in 1992, a peak year for ill-gotten gains in Russia, four-fifths of GDP was siphoned off by several types of corruption. For ordinary Russians and their farms and factories, this loss was an astounding blow. -- These issues are not new. Nearly three years ago in remarks about Russia at Columbia University, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned, "Crime and corruption ... threaten to discredit and even doom reform." Some would say this has come to pass, at least partly, and that human rights are one of the casualties. -- A question on the minds of a lot of people, including many friends of Russia, is: How do the diseases of crime, corruption, and human rights violations combine to weaken democracy and the rule of law in Russia, sap strength of the state, and undermine the well-being of its people? Are these diseases spreading, or are they in remission? And what can be done to promote a lasting cure? -- In July in St. Petersburg, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly endorsed strong language on human rights and corruption at the initiative of the U.S. Delegation, which was led by Chairman Smith and Co-Chairman Campbell and included 15 other Senators and Representatives. -- The briefing today will shed much light on vital questions for Russia's future. Respect for human rights must not be a Potemkin village. It is a core issue for any state that seeks the respect of its own citizens, and the support of the international community. This is especially true for a country whose future is so uncertain, but which has such great prospects if it makes far deeper democratic and economic reforms. -- Fortunately, concen- tration camps and psychiatric hospitals in Russia are no longer in use as means to threaten and punish those who seek to exercise such fundamental rights as the freedoms of expression, religion, and association. -- But as our testimony this morning will show, there remain many human rights issues in Russia that deserve close attention. -- We look forward to the briefing today from our three distinguished guests.


The Human Rights Situation in the Russian Federation, 1998 By Ludmilla Alexeeva, President of the Moscow Helsinki Group and President of the International Helsinki Foundation Before the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress 2255 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, D.C. 10:00 a.m. - September 8, 1999.
Russia is a truly enormous country that comprises 89 regions, each one of them comparable to most of European states in territory and population. As for the differences in political and social environment, some Russian regions actually contrast with one another much more drastically than different Europeans states. Due to the immensity of the country and heterogeneity of the regions, no single NGO is capable of monitoring the situation with human rights across the entire territory of the Russian Federation on its own. Such over-all monitoring can be realized only through active collaboration of the NGOs from different regions with the results of their work brought together and thoroughly analyzed. This very principle is at the heart of the Project "Human Rights Monitoring in Russia" developed and realized by the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews with the participation of the National Endowment for Democracy and generous support of the US Agency for Interna- tional Development. This project required a tremendous organiza- tional effort. On this festive occasion I shall not get into structural details. I will only mention that the human rights monitoring program, the results of which we are presently bringing to your attention, was realized in 30 Russian regions. The over-all Project's time-frame is three years. In the year 1999 it is intended to engage the total of 60 regions, and in the year 2000 - 89 regions, i.e. each and every region in the country. During these three years, all the regional human rights NGOs shall grow competent in the practice of monitoring, and regular reporting on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation shall accordingly become their permanent function. All the major organizational work was executed by the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest of the currently active Russian human rights organizations. It was founded on May 12, 1976 and became internationally acknowledged as the first NGO in the USSR that attempted to monitor the situation with human rights in the country and prepared documents revealing the Soviet Union's violations of the Helsinki Agreements' humanitarian articles. The information on the violations of the Helsinki Agreements by the USSR was thus sent to the leaders of the other signatory states, which was an absolutely unprecedented insolence from the Soviet point of view. Dr. Yuri Orlov, first Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, paid for that insolence with 7 years of camps and 5 year of exile. Most of the Group's members also paid in kind - either with deprivation of freedom of with forced emigration. Here, in this room, it is also fitting to recall that the MHG's first partner abroad was the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The first offer of cooperation that we received from the overseas was made by Congressman Dante Fassel, first Chair of the Commission, and it was at your Commission's hearings that I came forth with the very first testimony on the MHG's activi- ties and on the persecutions of the MHG's members by the Soviet State. At this briefing, I am happy to report that now, when we live not in the USSR but in the Russian Federation, and our human rights movement has grown tremendously, the Moscow Helsinki Group still occupies a very significant place in the frame of that movement. Since May 1996, the main trend of our activities is in supporting the human rights organizations in the Russian regions thus providing for the development of Russian human rights movement as a whole. In 1996 we began by supporting 50 regional organizations only. Today, our database includes over 1200 human rights organizations across the territory of the Russian Federation. As a result of the growth of the human rights movement and the MHG's strong ties and great relationships with our regional colleagues, it actually became possible to realize the complex program of human rights monitoring, whose first result - the report on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation - we are presenting today. The significance of this project is not limited to having annual reports on the situation with human rights in our country. It is, of course, very important by itself, but no less important is the fact that this report is a product of collective work of the human rights organizations from different regions. Such collaboration promotes consolidation and turns the conglomerate of individual NGOs, separated from one another by some enormous distances, into one united human rights movement. And it is obvious that the more consolidate the movement, the more influential it is. Furthermo- re, the reports submitted by the regional NGOs and the All-Russi- an Report written on their foundation highlight the shortcomings of our work, bringing our attention to those areas that need improvement. For example, in the regional reports there is very little material on the situation of religious confessions and on the situation of women. That omission testifies to the fact that the human rights NGOs have no strong ties with either religious associations in their respective regions or with women groups, which, by the way, are very active in quite a number of regions. It is evident that the human rights activities must work in that direction not only in order to find such materials and include them into the reports for 1999 but also in order to strengthen the NGOs' network in their respective regions and provide for further development of the democratic society in Russia. Nevertheless, despite all the flaws of our first report and despite the fact that in the first year of the monitoring project only 30 out of the total of 89 Russian regions were involved, the report does give an objective idea of the situation with human rights in Russia. Here and now, I shall try to give that situation a summary. The Constitution of the Russian Federation endows Russian citizens with very broad rights and freedoms that are not less extensive that the one the citizens of the most democratic countries enjoy in the contemporary world. Still, if in the Soviet times our problem was in having no such rights by the virtue of Law, now we are facing another problem that is equally difficult to solve - the laws are not carried into life, and the citizens' constitutional rights are constantly violated by the officials of all power levels, from the President (Chechnya alone is an absolutely colossal act of abuse!) and to the pettiest clerk. The great majority of Russian functionaries, most of whom were Soviet functionaries not such a long time ago, don't even know the Law, don't have any respect for it and don't see the essentiality of compliance to the Law. In our country, there is no tradition of law-abidance. This statement is true in regards of all the power branches, including the ones whose very duty is to control the laws' execution (in Russia, it is the Prosecutor's Office) and the ones that must guarantee the laws' execution (the militia). But the most destructive influence on the situation with human rights or, I should say, on the very atmosphere of Russian life, belongs with the law-violating Russian courts. The entire system of power is not only ignorant but also corrupted from top to bottom. The law-enforcing organs grew into one with the criminal world, on the hand, and represent one corporation, bound with common interests, with the judicial organs, on the other hand. And this is the main reason for the unlawful court verdicts being no rare exception but rather a routine phenomenon. Any man, detained by the militia for some very trifle reason, and sometimes for no reason at all, faces a very serious danger of never getting out of the militia-station alive or of going from there directly to a place of confinement, subject to accusation in a very grave crime, sometimes as grave as murder, which he never actually committed. At each and every seminar, at each and every conference with the participation of regional human rights activists, we inevitably come to the opinion that nowadays the defiance of the Law, demonstrated by the law-enforcement organs and courts, the utter corruption and criminalization of these power bodies are primarily dangerous for our state and citizens. The regional reports are practically overflowing with the facts of beatings at the militia-stations and in process of investigation, about false confessions being literally beaten out of people and about court decrees made on the foundation of such confessions. The Russian functionaries' legal nihilism is flourishing not only due to the absence of the law-abidance tradition, but also because the legal ignorance of the large majority of our citizens. The State opted out of providing for the citizens' legal enlightenment, completely abandoned that task, whose realization is especially needed in the modern Russian society. Our Constitution is only 5 years old and really very different from its Soviet predecessor. Russian citizens are not aware of their rights, don't know how to use them, have no skills in defending them. This empty niche of human rights enlightenment is being gradually filled by the NGOs. Precisely due to our society's vital demand for this kind of activities, Russian human rights organizations are swiftly growing in number, covering practically the entire country, and comprising the most active and the most educated Russian citizens. In the last few years, young people have been massively joining the movement, especially young professionals. They are students, lawyers recently admitted to the Bar, psychologists, teachers, journalists and sociologists. The primary form of human rights work in the Russian provinces is general human rights enlightenment through the mass-media bodies, elective courses in schools and other educational facilities, and especially through the public help desks that offer free legal counseling and provide free legal assistance to those citizens whose rights were violated by the state power bodies and their functionaries. In Russia, defending the citizens' rights from the lawless functio- naries is akin to Sisyphean labor. The functionaries can easily violate people's rights by one single scrape of the pen, while in order to achieve the rights' restoration it is often needed to go through each and every judicial instance, all the way to the Supreme Court. And even the Supreme Court sometimes fails to serve the ends of justice. So, a great flow of complaints is now streaming from Russia to the European Human Rights Court. The only way to crush that evil tradition of disdain for our Constitution and laws and stop the mass violation of human rights is to create efficient mechanisms of public control and implement them into each and every human-rights relevant sphere of life in the Russian Federation. We must achieve absolute openness, absolute transparency for our citizens and taxpayers in such fields as the penitentiary facilities, militia-stations, orphanages, institutions for handicapped people, the military, and the movement of financial assets from the center to the regions in order to pay the salaries to teachers, doctors and other budgetary employees. The army of Russian functionaries, that used to ignore the human rights activists for a long time, is now mobilizing against them. In the last few years, numerous attempts have been made to hamper the NGOs' work if not to get rid of them at all. Among such attempts is the bill on subjecting to taxation the grants that the NGOs receive from the overseas and even the labor of the NGOs' volunteers. The threat of this bill is not over yet for us. Another method used to hinder the NGOs is the policy of obstruction to re-registration, which all the Russian public organizations had to pass before July 1, 1999. As for the registration of new NGOs, it was practically blocked all together. The human rights and ecological organizations have had to face the most serious obstacles. For example, it took the Moscow Helsinki Group six whole months to reregister. Another prominent human rights organization, "Glasnost" Foundation, was actually refused re-registration, and the Moscow City Court let the refusal stand. The newly founded organization "Ecology and Human Rights" was not allowed to register either. The explanati- ons, given by the Departments of Justice and Courts that consider such cases, are of special interest. The judges actually allude to those very articles of the Constitution that guarantee to the Russian citizens their rights and freedoms and then, on the basis of these articles, make an absolutely incredible conclusion that the citizens, therefore should not protect their rights on their own. At the same time, the functionaries totally ignore the most crucial question - what is to be done, if the citizens' rights are being violated by the state power bodies? It is notorious that the attack on the human rights organizations began after they had come forth with bitter critique of the Law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations". The attack on the religious associations was, therefore, the first stone, the "testing stone", so to say, hurled at the NGOs, and especially at the human rights NGOs, with the ultimate purpose of destroying them. Finally, I would like to conclude my presentation by reminding that in the Soviet times a wonderful tradition was formed in the democratic countries. During each visit of the Soviet officials to the democratic countries as well as during the visits of the officials and public figures from the democra- tic countries to the Soviet Union, the representatives of the democratic world addressed the Soviets with the requests to free the political prisoners, to allow the refuseniks to leave the country, to ease the regime of confinement for the prisoners of conscience, and so on and so forth. Our Western guests took it upon themselves to act as mediators, understanding perfectly well that the Soviet regime makes it impossible for the dissenters to address the authorities directly on any level at all and that in the USSR there can be no real contacts between the society and the state powers bodies. Unfortunately, Russian human rights activists are still in great need of foreign intercession, because, despite the fact that the human rights movement became quite a significant phenomenon, the authorities, both federal and local, do not want to take it into consideration. This statement is especially true in regards of the federal and Moscow power bodies. Hence, I hereby appeal to the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe to reawaken that tradition and to promote its revival in all of the countries signatory to the Helsinki Agreements. We need you once again to become mediators between the authorities and the independent public of our country, in the course of each visit and on each and every suitable occasion.