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Erosion of Human Rights Accelerates in Russia, Activist Says

(Washington, DC--February 14, 2005) The quality of human rights in Russia has declined steadily for the past several years, but has accelerated during the last year, according to Ludmila Alekseeva, a founder and current Chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who spoke at a recent RFE/RL briefing in Washington. Alekseeva said Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer bothering to hide behind his "mask" of democracy.

Although Putin recently renamed the Presidential Commission for Human Rights as a Presidential Council for Human Rights, presumably giving the body more authority, Alekseeva said that it had become clear to human rights organizations that the council is not a "public voice." Alekseeva also doubts whether this 84 person council, made up of 42 members chosen by President Putin and 42 additional members chosen by the original picks, can fulfill its mandate to "monitor social processes and government activities." Alekseeva at first thought the council could help restrain the government, but has come to realize it is little more than a "bare imitation" of an oversight institution.

After the December 2003 Duma election, Putin and his administration have moved against the media and opposition political parties, and announced the elimination of gubernatorial elections. According to Alekseeva, "The whole spectrum of civil rights--civil, political, social, and economic--is worsening across all strata of society." Alekseeva believes that "Putin actually doesn't know how to be democratic," so it is not surprising that his effort to produce a dialogue with society, initiated with the "Civil Forum," has only yielded "steps backward," like the presidential council on human rights.

Daniil Meshcheryakov, the executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group who also briefed the RFE/RL audience, stated that one factor which acts as a check on Putin is his desire to part of the G7--the group of industrial democracies. If Russia's participation in the G7 was made dependent on better conditions for civil society and human rights organizations in Russia, Meshcheryakov said, Putin's desire to become a world "mogul" could help the development of democracy in Russia, and stop the war in Chechnya.

Meshcheryakov spoke from the perspective of a younger generation of human rights activists that entered the scene roughly six years ago. According to Meshcheryakov, "The wave of initiative comes from the bottom," describing increased participation by young professionals in the human rights movement. Both Alekseeva and Meshcheryakov agreed that older and younger activists are blending their knowledge and abilities well to produce "expert pools" within the grassroots movement in Russia.

In discussing the recent pensioners' demonstrations in Russia, Alekseeva noted that young people had already joined in this civic protest. She predicted a dramatic increase of student participation in mass protests, if the Russian Defense Ministry cancels or abolishes student military deferments later this year. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that a high availability of contract soldiers will eliminate the need for the spring draft; however, Alekseeva noted, past low births rates have led to a shortage of military-aged men, and the continued war in Chechnya only exacerbates the situation.

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