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Amid Crackdown, Putin Reportedly Plans Human Rights Award

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian police detain protesters in Moscow in October 2013. After years of squashing rights activists, is the Kremlin changing tactics?

Russian police detain protesters in Moscow in October 2013. After years of squashing rights activists, is the Kremlin changing tactics?

MOSCOW -- Rights groups in Russia have been ensnared in a far-reaching government clampdown since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, but some activists may soon get plaudits and even prize money from an unlikely quarter: the Kremlin.

Putin is preparing to sign a decree establishing an annual award for human rights activists and charity workers who deserve merit, the daily Kommersant reported on August 12.

The first prize is set to be awarded by Putin personally in 2016 and will see 6 million rubles ($93,000) worth of financial awards disbursed, according to the newspaper. The decree to set up the prize is reportedly already drafted, sitting on Putin's desk and awaiting his signature.

The prize has been in the pipeline for some years. According to Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Putin's advisory council on human rights and civil society, Putin ordered the council to draft proposals for the prize back in 2013.

The reaction in human rights circles will be mixed.

Pavel Chikov, a prominent human rights activist who heads the Agora center, which provides legal aid for victims of rights abuses by law enforcement, said the prize would be part of a "political game."

"There is also no doubt the Kremlin will try to show with this who it thinks is a human rights activist and whose activity it thinks is human rights," Chikov told RFE/RL. "I also doubt it will name any of the veteran human rights activists, because these things are all calculated."

Fedotov is far more upbeat. Speaking to Kommersant, he said the prize would be crucial to alleviating the stigma that has been attached to human rights organizations during the clampdown on civil society and the anti-Western campaign that has accompanied it.

'Foreign Agents,' 'Undesirable'

Dozens of foreign-funded human rights organizations have been officially branded "foreign agents," a pejorative Cold War-era term, under a law Putin signed in 2012.

Some organizations have in turn spurned foreign financing, although these have often found it hard to secure replacement domestic financing because of the negative light they are cast in.

Human rights NGOs again found themselves under public scrutiny as Putin signed a new law in May allowing the authorities to declare international and foreign organizations "undesirable," banning their activities altogether on Russian territory.

Fedotov told Kommersant the prize would help "to raise the prestige of [human rights] activity and to remove the suspicions of a part of society with regard to human rights activists."

The Kremlin's human rights council believes that public organizations should participate in the nomination of candidates for the prize.

According to Kommersant, prize nominees will be chosen by a commission named by the Kremlin administration, which among others will include members of the council and the Public Chamber, another advisory group.

Activists expressed concern that Putin could use the prize to co-opt critics, or to create divisions by separating Kremlin-approved rights groups from organizations treated as enemies of the state -- much as the government is accused of having done with politicians and parties.

In such an atmosphere, Chikov said activists awarded the prize could face a tough choice about whether to accept it.

"This will prompt discussions, which have in fact already begun, about whether it is okay to accept this prize -- whether it is appropriate or inappropriate," he said. "This is also one of the aims of this initiative in my opinion: the very presence of this discussion and the setting of human rights activists before a moral dilemma."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov could not immediately be reached for comment on August 12. In addition to Kommersant, the newspaper Vedomosti and state-run news agency RIA published reports saying the prize would be established, citing Fedotov and sources in Putin's administration.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at