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Russia: Fighting For Change In Good And Bad Times

  • Gregory Feifer

In Russia, one human rights defender -- Lev Ponomarev -- is doing more than anyone else to mobilize opposition to the government's war in Chechnya. But the breakaway republic is far from Ponomarev's first political cause. He played a central role in the democratic movement that helped topple the Soviet Union and establish Western models of government in Russia. Ponomarev spoke to RFE/RL about his political career and determination to keep fighting for democratic values at a time when he says they are slowly, but surely, eroding.

Moscow, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When it comes to protesting Kremlin policy, Lev Ponomarev is a near-constant presence. The self-effacing, clean-cut 53-year-old can sometimes be seen on the back of a flatbed truck, megaphone in hand, calling for an end to the war in Chechnya. Other times he can be spotted darting between the offices of the country's top liberal politicians, drumming up support for the antiwar cause.

Ponomarev is the head of For Human Rights, which he says is the country's largest rights group, uniting around 90 regional and local organizations. The human rights defender stands behind many prominent initiatives and has taken the lead in protesting the war in Chechnya, organizing public demonstrations and rallying politicians, writers, and other public figures around the cause.

With only a handful of Russians regularly turning out to protest the Chechen war, the public response to Ponomarev's drives can sometimes be discouraging. But that was not always the case. Ponomarev's credentials as a political activist go back to the last heady years of the Soviet Union, when he helped form human rights groups and a political movement that was key in organizing massive street demonstrations that brought Russia's historic winds of change to the world's attention.

A physicist in Soviet days, Ponomarev says he first gravitated toward dissident circles in the 1980s. He crossed over to political activism in 1987, coming up with the idea for Memorial -- now one of the country's preeminent rights organizations -- to remember the millions who died under Soviet rule.

He soon left to work with fellow physicist dissident Andrei Sakharov, elected in 1989 to the Soviet parliament in its first open voting. The following year, Sakharov backed Ponomarev's successful candidacy in elections to the legislature in Russia, then one of 15 Soviet republics.

Once elected, Ponomarev helped form the Democratic Russia movement -- a "proto-party," in his words, that became the main opposition to the Communist Party. Uniting politicians and intellectuals, Democratic Russia played a key part in bringing Boris Yeltsin to power as president.

As one of Democratic Russia's leaders, Ponomarev was responsible for overseeing the organization of public demonstrations against Soviet rule. He described the mood of those history-making times: "It was a wonderful time. Of course we had a huge responsibility, because we brought hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets of Moscow. That's an absolutely certain figure. Our biggest gathering consisted of 500,000 to 700,000 people -- it was hard to count, but it was approximately that size. Moscow hadn't seen such demonstrations for a long time -- and apparently also won't in the future -- and the responsibility was great because I was desperately afraid something would go wrong."

Ponomarev had to fight accusations that Democratic Russia was plotting against the government. He said Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev went so far as to publicly accuse the movement of ordering rope ladders to storm the Kremlin.

Former top Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev, a key proponent of Gorbachev's glasnost policy, confirmed that former KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov presented Gorbachev with false charges against Democratic Russia.

Yakovlev said that while Ponomarev was, at times, overly confrontational and advocated change too quickly, Gorbachev erred by failing to grasp the constructive nature of Ponomarev's opposition. "I think Lev played a great role at the time. I have a great respect for him and his actions. He has a passionate character -- he doesn't bend," Yakovlev said.

Ponomarev now agrees that the country may have been better suited to a slower form of change, but he said Gorbachev should have shown a willingness to hold talks with Democratic Russia. "Gorbachev's main mistake was that he didn't agree to the creation of a roundtable [to discuss democratic change with Democratic Russia]. I think if you ask Gorbachev now, he'd probably admit it. Instead, he fed on myths about our democratic movement," he said.

During the failed hard-line coup in 1991, which brought about the Soviet collapse, Ponomarev spearheaded the organization of public rallies in support of Yeltsin.

Sergei Yushenkov is a liberal Duma deputy who also took part in the events during the coup, when he convinced tanks sent to the Russian parliamentary building to support Yeltsin. He praised Ponomarev's organizing abilities: "He indisputably holds a very honored position in the history of the democratic movement."

Following the Soviet collapse, Ponomarev said he played a major part in what he calls Russia's "democratic revolution." "Democratic Russia's main achievement was that, through our legislation, we laid the foundation for a democratic state. The country is now rolling back the laws adopted in the early 1990s, but those laws are functioning to this day. They were written, roughly speaking, on the models of legislation in the United States and Europe," he said.

Not everyone agrees -- including Ruslan Khasbulatov, the conservative former speaker of the Russian parliament, called the Supreme Soviet at the time. Khasbulatov led a revolt against Yeltsin in 1993, during which hard-line legislators holed up in the parliament until Yeltsin brought the standoff to an end by shelling the building.

"[Ponomarev and Democratic Russia members] got in my way at the time. If it weren't for their loud actions and their slavish support for Yeltsin, the parliament would have stayed intact and there wouldn't have been a war in Chechnya. They didn't know what parliamentary politics were. They thought it meant having to shout, make noise, and organize protests."

Earlier, Ponomarev formed a parliamentary committee to investigate the coup attempt, which Khasbulatov later shut down. The committee's work in the KGB archives helped push Yeltsin to call for a ban on the Communist Party, a move that never came to pass.

Ponomarev said he met with Yeltsin many times soon after his election as president, but that Democratic Russia's influence on the administration quickly waned.

After serving a term in Russia's first Duma, Ponomarev lost in parliamentary elections in 1995 and considered returning to academia.

Instead, he helped resurrect the Soviet-era Helsinki Group dissident organization in Moscow before going on to form For Human Rights. The group concentrates on filing lawsuits and providing other help in specific cases of rights violations.

Ponomarev now criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin for allowing the country's security structures to dominate the political system. "He passively observes the situation from the sidelines and works on his own public relations -- that's what the situation essentially resembles. And meanwhile, the country is practically falling apart because incompetent security-services officials have come to power in very many areas," Ponomarev said.

How does the man who helped bring out hundreds of thousands of people to protest Soviet rule feel now that only a tiny handful bother to gather for demonstrations against Moscow's brutal war in Chechnya? Unflappable. "As long as authorities are elected in Russia," he said, "protests influence the situation."

Former Politburo member Yakovlev agrees. "History moves in cycles," he said of Russia's early post-Soviet democrats. "Their time will come again."

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