By Annie Bang and Michelle Townsend
Four human rights activists from Russia were in Washington recently to receive recognition for their efforts to promote democracy and to discuss the challenges they are facing in their country.
Washington, 15 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The importance of a free media was brought home to Arsenii Roginskii while he was incarcerated in a Soviet prison camp from 1981 until 1985. Roginskii says a friend had managed to build a radio inside an electric razor. "I remember, in the night, he would push a button and out would come the voice of Radio Liberty," he said.
In the 1970s, Roginskii edited and compiled a samizdat collection of materials on the history of political repression in the Soviet Union for publication in Paris. He was eventually sentenced to prison for his publication of historical, literary, and political writing.
Roginskii is now the chairman of the International Memorial Society, which protects refugees and victims of political persecution in Chechnya and other zones of armed conflict in Russia. He was one of four human rights activists from Russia to receive the National Endowment for Democracy's Annual Democracy Award last week in Washington. The endowment is a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) says Russia has reached what it calls a "momentous crossroads: It can move forward toward democracy, economic prosperity, and the rule of law; or it can move backward toward state domination of society and the economy, restrictions on basic freedoms, and deepening corruption and autocracy."
The group points to President Vladimir Putin's recent state-of-the-nation speech, in which he called for Russia to become "a mature democracy" while also accusing human rights and democracy groups of "serving dubious...interests" and receiving foreign funding.
While they were in the U.S. capital, the four activists participated in a panel discussion at the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They discussed many civil rights issues in Russia, but emphasized that legal reform is the central concern.
Mara Polyakova is director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise, which reviews and analyzes legislation in Russia affecting basic rights and provides legal assistance. Polyakova noted that the Russian government has said it wants to improve the country's judicial system. But she said the formulation of new codes and laws has been so "convoluted as to create the impression that they are democratic." "On the surface, the reform is written in a way that is perceived by nonspecialists as democratic reform," she added.
Aleksei Simonov is head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which defends freedom of the press, trains journalists to work in war zones, and protects their rights. He said his focus now is on the next generation of Russian leaders, on the need to cultivate politicians in Russia who are dedicated to democracy. "I have serious worries about my abilities to pass on what has been achieved because by that time, it might have been destroyed," he said.
Lyudmilla Alekseeva is chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of Russia's leading human rights groups, and president of the International Helsinki Foundation. She is concerned about the government's interference in elections.
Beginning in 1956, Alekseeva's apartment became a meeting place for Moscow's intelligentsia and a center for the distribution of samizdat. During this time, she was involved in assisting political prisoners and their families while also writing extensively on human rights issues. She was exiled to the United States and returned to Russia in 1993.
Responding to Simonov's pessimism, Alekseeva said he is comparing the present situation to Russia to the late 1980s and early 1990s -- the height of democratic activism. "We were fighting an enormous entity, this huge machine," Alekseeva said, "and all we had was our decisiveness, our intent to stand firm and defend human rights."
She said she is more optimistic, although she said she sometimes has doubts about the sincerity of diplomats and others who praise her work and support the cause of democracy in Russia. "When they meet us, all of them tell us that they sympathize with us and support us as much as they can," she said. "But we don't know if their words represent the facts."