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Russia: Rights Activists Are 'Knights Of The New Political Thinking'

Sergei Kovalyov (file photo) (AFP) September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Although the liberal Yabloko party has almost no chance of winning seats in Russia's December 2 legislative elections, the party surprised observers by announcing this week that veteran human-rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov will hold the No. 2 spot on Yabloko party list for the polls.

Kovalyov, 77, is a scientist and Soviet-era dissident who has been active in politics and civil rights since 1969. He is regarded as a protege of Soviet dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov. He entered politics in 1990 and was a cofounder of the pro-government Russia's Choice party, which contested the 1993 Duma elections. From 1994-96, he headed President Boris Yeltsin's human rights commission and was outspoken in his criticism of the war in Chechnya.

Kovalyov spoke with RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 17 about the upcoming elections and Russian politics generally.

RFE/RL: Over the last year you have de facto become one of the leaders of Yabloko. Now you are an active politician and a member of the party. How did it happen that your interests and goals came to coincide?

Sergei Kovalyov: It is something of an exaggeration when you say I have become a leader of the party. I'd say I've become one of the temporary leaders, since only yesterday I became a member of the party's troika [the top three candidates on its party list]. You probably know that [in the party] there is an organized human-rights faction and I am one of its leaders. What attracted me to Yabloko is precisely that this party has clearly declared that rights are one of its main -- if not the main -- priorities. And that absolutely corresponds with my personal position, which in recent times has acquired a conviction that is not typical of activists. That is, I think that the fairly widespread attitude of human-rights activists that "we aren't politicians and we don't engage in politics" is the result of some sort of misunderstanding, some sort of maxim that has not been completely mastered by these activists.

It came about like this. It's perfectly justified to say that rights are outside of politics and above politics. That is, if you will, the fundamental principle of human rights. Rights are a border of politics, and are not a means of politics. However, I think that rights activists, as opposed to lawyers and legal scholars, engage only in politics and nothing else, even if they don't always understand that this is so. Like the Moliere character who didn't know that he spoke in prose.

I assure you, there is nothing paradoxical in this. It's actually perfectly logical. It's just that rights activists are people who affirm the primacy of human rights, who demand that politicians affirm this primacy and that politicians consciously observe these limitations.... If you like, rights advocates are the knights of the new political thinking that was formulated in the middle of the last century by such remarkable people as Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and their coauthors, very significant figures in science and thought, including Andrei Sakharov. This is a really new politics, a new political thinking about which I am speaking and which human-rights advocates are demanding. It's not just a non-traditional political model -- it's a fundamental upheaval in politics.

Therefore, I am profoundly convinced (and my predecessors in this field, I believe, proceeded from this conviction) that traditional politics, so-called realpolitik, politics governed by the principle that politics is the art of the possible, this traditional politics has not simply run its course, but has become a very dangerous atavism.

Slim Chances For Yabloko

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate Yabloko's chances in the legislative elections, considering the current political situation in Russia?

Kovalyov: I am not a fortuneteller. To put it simply, I think those chances are highly problematic -- about 7 percent [the minimum vote required for parties to gain seats in the Duma]. But I think that Yabloko must energetically, openly, sincerely, and by all means available to decent people try to boost those chances, try to find our chance. I think that, most likely, that 7 percent will not be reached.

I'd put it this way: if the Kremlin is not terribly afraid of that Yabloko 7 percent and waves it off and says, "to hell with them; let the West think that we even allow firm oppositionists into parliament, that's how democratic we are," then there will be an imitation parliament in our country. After all, all of this is only an imitation, but if this imitation parliamentarianism is going to be more precise than it has been to date, then that 7 percent is attainable.

But if the Kremlin is seized by horror (it is often afraid of the fruits of its own fantasies) and decides, "no, there's no way," then everything is in its hands -- whatever percentage it wants to give, it will give.

RFE/RL: So all participants in the Russian political process must play according to the rules established by the Kremlin, and those rule might change during the course of the election campaign. So what is your task as a politician? What do you want to show? What do you want to prove?

Kovalyov: I'll tell you straight. For me personally and, I think, not just for me (although not for all those who are participating in the elections from Yabloko) -- but at least for some of us, that 7 percent, that formal result of the elections, is not very important. To the limits of my strength and ability, I will try to use this slightly larger possibility to be heard by at least someone. That's all.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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