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Russian Civil Society Perseveres Despite Lack of Democracy and Western Support


(Washington, DC -- November 8, 2005) Civil society in Russia is struggling to survive as the country risks becoming a nationalistic authoritarian state, according to two longtime Russian human rights experts. Ludmila Alekseeva and Tanya Lokshina told a recent RFE/RL audience in Washington that civil society is the "only independent part of Russian society" that continues to resist the government's efforts to "command" all segments of Russian life. They also said that this "third sector" receives little support from its former allies in Western democracies.

According to Alekseeva, the founder and chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the time in office of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin is considered a "golden age" for Russian non-governmental organizations (NGO) -- even though this is "not [because] Yeltsin was a strong democrat," but rather because "society was left to its own devices and we managed to build civil society" while the "power elites" struggled amongst themselves and ignored the lower strata. Alekseeva said that Russia has emerged from its economic crises under President Vladimir Putin, but there is "no division of power in Russia under the model of executive vertical controls," where regional governors, a "puppet parliament," and a judiciary "stripped" of independence are under the Kremlin's control. There is "no independent business" in Russia, she said, because the "Khodorkovsky model" of harassing businessmen unwilling to follow dictates from the Kremlin has been applied "in the regions against small and medium sized businesses." Nonetheless, according to Alekseeva, Russia is "not returning to Soviet times," because "today the attacks are selective" and "there is now a civil society" to resist the pressure.

Alekseeva expressed concern that "Western democratic states don't react to attacks on human rights." She said that "in Soviet times, we few dissidents felt enormous Western support." She called that support "our shield," which she said is now missing. Except for "some support inside by radio stations like RFE/RL and VOA," the supporters of civil society feel "now abandoned by Western allies," Alekseeva said. She noted that "these radios" are "doomed to expand their audiences," as "those who are not satisfied seek out alternative information."

Lokshina, the chairperson of the DEMOS Center for Information and Research, concurred with Alekseeva that less support is received from the West by civil society activists now than during Soviet times. She claimed that the U.S. and EU are "careful around Putin" and "sensitive issues don't get raised," because the West fears that Russia "will slam the door." Lokshina said these fears are "overplayed," because "Russians want to be seen as part of the West" and this should be "used as leverage" by the West. Lokshina also noted "no coherent, single policy" exists for dealing with Putin's government.

According to Lokshina, the West is not paying attention to the "bloodshed in Chechnya," where the Kremlin's policy of "Chechenization" has created ostensibly "loyal structures" that the Kremlin no longer controls. Under Chechnya's 2003 constitution, the republic will soon have parliamentary elections for which both national and locally-based parties are now campaigning, Lokshina said. However, "no one dares to speak the truth" about the "impunity and violence" and "lack of protection and security" that exist in Chechnya today, she said. Lokshina suggested that the situation in Chechnya might be best understood in comparison to that in Kosovo, where the West has invested more money and resources than Chechnya."Kosovo has a chance to be a stable state," she said -"but Chechnya is not Kosovo" and therefore the "civilian losses and victimization" are "tolerated."
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