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Russia Report: December 15, 2005

15 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 35
By Claire Bigg

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption comes into force on 14 December. By ratifying the treaty, the 140 signatory countries -- which include Russia -- pledge to pool their efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish corruption. Will this pave the way for the Russian government to take action against the country's rampant corruption? Experts are skeptical. According to a global corruption study released the week before, corruption in Russia appears to be entrenching itself deeper into all government structures.

In a declaration marking its adoption in October 2003, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the convention as a vital step forward in tackling corruption at the global level.

The pact obligates all countries that have ratified the convention to assist each other in preventing and fighting corruption, pursuing corrupt companies and individuals, and retrieving stolen assets.

In Russia, however, experts are casting doubts over the government's commitment to stamping out corruption even at home, and blame the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin for dragging its feet in submitting the convention to parliament for ratification.

Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Russian office of Transparency International, a global anticorruption organization, says the convention, even if ratified, is unlikely to bring much progress in stemming corruption in Russia.

"[Corruption] is very endemic. It is possible to set such goals, but the convention should not be idealized. Even if the convention is ratified in Russia, the corresponding changes will need to be ushered into the Russian legislation," Panfilova said. "And most significantly, the convention demands that it be applied in a compulsory and non-selective manner. If our authorities are able guarantee this, then everything will function. But in this respect, I am so far not very optimistic."

Putin has been vocal in denouncing corruption and bribery. In his state-of-the-nation address on 25 April, he lashed out at government and police officials for all too often abusing power to extort bribes.

But experts charge that the government's efforts to eliminate corruption have failed to translate into concrete measures.

Kirill Kabanov, the head of the National Anticorruption Committee, says state corruption has on the contrary exploded over the past few years.

He says officials have to pay increasingly large bribes to land governmental jobs. And those who accept to pay the price, Kabanov says, are usually quick to bribe others in return.

"I have the impression that the president and the rest of the bureaucratic machine are totally disconnected. The president makes declarations, and the bureaucratic machine continues to work exactly in the same way, even gaining pace," Kabanov said. "Everyone, after receiving his administrative post, tries to use it as fast and as efficiently as possible, or, in other words, to gain material profit."

A global corruption study released by Transparency International on 9 December also suggests that corruption and bribery are thriving unhindered in Russia.

The study, based on a nationwide opinion poll, shows that systematic corruption continues to permeate government structures, with police topping the list of institutions perceived as the most corrupt. It is followed closely by the parliament, political parties, and courts.

Nearly 30 percent of Russians polled said either they or their close relatives have had to pay a bribe in the past 12 months, with bribes averaging $129 a year per household.

Most worryingly, the study found that in the majority of cases, Russians had to pay bribes not to obtain a special favor but simply to be able to benefit from services to which they are entitled by law.

In a separate corruption index issued in July, Indem Foundation, another anticorruption watchdog, said between 20 and 30 million Russians had to relinquish free medical services because they were unable to afford the bribes.

As a result of the endemic nature of bribery in Russia and the government's failure to take tough action, Russians seem to have only bleak hopes for a corruption-free society.

Panfilova says Russians were by far the most pessimistic respondents in Transparency International's poll.

"The highest pessimism was displayed in Russia. A majority of citizens said that the situation concerning corruption had grown worse over the past three years and that it will remain the same or worsen further over the next three years. We haven't found such pessimism in many countries," Panfilova said.

Indem expects the volume of bribes to reach a staggering $320 billion in 2005. The bulk of this sum is forked out by entrepreneurs, who are forced to pay an average bribe of $135,000 to officials in order to run their businesses.

According to Indem, the size of bribes paid by businesses has increased 13-fold since the previous survey in 2001.

By Claire Bigg

A Moscow court on 8 December found 39 members of the banned radical National Bolshevik Party guilty of staging mass unrest by forcing their way into a presidential administration building one year ago. A handful were given prison sentences, but most of them walked free. Defense lawyers and relatives of the defendants have welcomed the verdict as relatively soft, but maintain the young activists were innocent.

The judges were expected to take two days to read the verdict, but the defendants did not have to wait that long. After just two hours, the court sentenced eight defendants to between 18 and 42 months in jail. The other 31 received suspended sentences and were immediately released.

Relatives of the young activists, most of whom are barely in their 20s, broke into applause and tears upon hearing the verdict. Many had feared much tougher sentences after the state prosecutor demanded prison terms of up to five years.

Dmitrii Agranovskii, one of the defense lawyers, has maintained that his clients are innocent and said the defense team will appeal the ruling. He said that his clients had previously announced their visit and peacefully entered the building with the intention of speaking to officials.

But he told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he and his colleagues were, on the whole, happy with the verdict -- although not without a touch of sarcasm.

"We are very happy. Innocent people spent only one year in detention, they could have spent longer -- we know the realities of our government," Agranovskii said. "There was nothing criminal in their actions, this is totally obvious. Besides, one should not forget that eight people, including three young women, are still in detention. I am happy with the fact that my clients were freed, but nonetheless, they spent a whole year in detention without having committed the smallest crime."

The National Bolshevik Party (NBP) is a radical youth movement known for its flamboyant antigovernment protests, which include throwing tomatoes, eggs, juice, and other foods at political foes.

Its most audacious protest, for which the 39 were standing trial, came on 4 December 2004, when activists peacefully seized one of the buildings of the presidential administration in Moscow. They locked themselves inside, waved a banner reading "Putin, Quit Your Job," and threw portraits of officials out the windows of the building.

Eduard Limonov, the ultra-nationalist Russian writer at the helm of the NBP, claims his groups has as many as 35,000 followers -- commonly referred to in Russia as "NatsBols" or "limonovtsi." Others say the numbers are much lower.

The NBP started in 1994 as a neo-fascist organization. Today, however, it calls itself an opposition group that strives for democracy and justice, and it formally rejects violence. But the party's provocative stunts have nonetheless riled the Kremlin and in June the movement was outlawed on extremism charges. This has led many to view yesterday's verdict, however mild, as obvious retribution for the NBP's spectacular political protests.

Vladimir Pribylovskii, the director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, thinks the verdict is over the top.

"The authorities are afraid of everything," Pribylovskii said. "They are afraid of these few hundred young people with an exacerbated sense of social justice who don't really do anything else other than throw tomatoes and chicken eggs. Hooliganism, yes, but this deserves 15 days, and they sentence them to three years in prison. They see a threat in everything at the Kremlin, including in the tomatoes thrown by National Bolsheviks."

But the most scathing denunciation of the verdict came from Limonov himself. He said the ruling was politically motivated and branded it a "reprisal unworthy of a government."

If the ruling was indeed an effort to scare NBP into submission, the authorities may have missed the mark -- many of the young activists released from jail yesterday have said they plan to continue political activity.

By Robert Parsons

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his chief of staff to draft amendments to a controversial bill on nongovernmental organizations after the Council of Europe expressed reservations about its content. The bill, which last month passed its first reading in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, has been criticized by civil-rights activists. Foreign NGOs have warned that they might have to close their offices if the legislation is enacted. Although President Putin said the concerns of the Council of Europe should be taken into account, he defended the bill as necessary to the fight against terrorism.

President Putin appears to have taken a step back from a bill on nongovernmental organizations that has been severely criticized both inside and outside Russia.

The Russian president told cabinet ministers on 5 December that the government should take into account the concerns expressed by the Council of Europe and Russia's own Public Chamber. Accordingly, he said he was asking his chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, to draft amendments to the bill by the end of the week.

At the same time, however, Putin defended the bill as necessary to ensure the country's security.

"This bill is needed only to safeguard our political system against external interference and to protect our society and citizens from any terrorist or misanthropic ideology that could be spreading under this or that sign," Putin said.

Putin emphasized that the democratic process and the achievements of Russian civil society were the country's main asset. He said that in protecting itself against harmful influences, Russia should be careful not "to throw the baby out with the bath water."

The reaction from local nongovernmental organizations has been skeptical. Aleksandr Petrov, head of Human Rights Watch Russia, said he's seen it all before.

"This is a favorite tactic of the government: two steps forward, one step back," Petrov said. "This has happened several times with other bills, when the government tables completely Draconian bills and then Putin comes along and says it should be amended. That's what's happened again and again, and this is just one more episode."

The State Duma passed the bill on its first reading on 23 November by the overwhelming margin of 370 to 18 -- despite concerns raised by the United States and the European Union.

If passed in its current form, the new legislation would prevent international organizations from having representatives or branch offices in Russia. To operate in Russia, they would have to register as Russian NGOs and be financially independent of their head offices. It would also make them ineligible for most sources of foreign funding.

Among those threatened with closure by the bill are international human rights organizations, think tanks, foundations, and social-welfare and humanitarian-aid organizations.

Petrov of Human Rights Watch Russia sees the bill as an attempt to destroy the NGO community.

"That goes well in line with all recent developments in Russia," Petrov said. "After all, TV stations were taken under control by the state and the political opposition was largely marginalized. The last independent sector of Russian society remains the noncommercial and general public organizations, and it seems it doesn't go in line with Putin's perception of how the state should be controlled."

Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is another who believes Putin's invocation of the security threat is a smoke screen to hide other intentions.

"Any attempts by Putin or any other government official to say that extremist or terrorist organizations are operating under the guise of NGOs -- well, excuse me, but laws already exist for this," Panfilov said. "There's the Criminal Code and there's the Law on the Fight against Terrorism. If an NGO really does propagandize extremism or terrorism, then ways exist to pursue it by legal means."

Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society. Panfilov said it's not security but politics that really lie at the heart of the bill. Like Petrov of Human Rights Watch, he argued that Putin fears the independence of civil society.

"Most of all, the authorities are alarmed by what happened in Georgia and Ukraine, where it's clear nongovernmental organizations played a major role in the revolutions there," Panfilov said. "So the Russian authorities are trying, two years ahead of the parliamentary elections, to in some way clean up the nongovernmental space, in order to protect themselves."

Putin's claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society.

They point out the elimination of most independent media, the subordination of regional elites to the center, and the weakness of parliament and the judiciary. Nongovernmental organizations, rights watchers say, are almost all that is left of the checks and balances to presidential power in Russia.

This week may show how the Russian president really regards what he himself describes as the "achievements of our civil society."

By Claire Bigg

The Forum of Migrants Organizations, a leading umbrella NGO that promotes the rights of migrants across Russia, has announced it is suspending its operations. The organization says its foreign sponsors have retracted after a controversial bill that would place NGOs under strict state control passed its first reading on 23 November. The bill's authors say the changes would help the government curtail the financing of terrorist groups in Russia, but NGOs have cautioned that the bill may be used by the government to crack down on organizations its deems unwelcome.

When the draft law was introduced into the State Duma in early November, many NGOs warned the proposed restrictions would force them to close down. And although the bill still has a long way to go before being signed into law, it seems to be already taking its toll on NGOs.

Lydia Grafova, the head of the Forum of Migrants' Organizations executive committee, says the draft law has scared off the group's foreign sponsors. As a result, she tells RFE/RL her organization will have to close down as soon as 1 January 2006.

"From the beginning of next year, we have no funding whatsoever -- we don't have a single kopeck, for example, to pay the rent. When we started discussing this law on nongovernmental organizations, and when doubt fell on absolutely all sponsors working in Russia, our potential sponsors fell mysteriously silent. We have indeed been forced to close down, we have no other option," Grafova said.

The Forum of Migrants' Organizations was founded in 1996 and supervises almost 200 migrant rights groups in 47 Russian regions. It was instrumental in lobbying for a softer immigration policy, including the government's recent decision to amnesty large numbers of migrants working illegally in Russia.

Grafova says growing xenophobic sentiments in Russia make the forum's closure particularly tragic.

"The Federal Migration Service, which consists largely of people in epaulettes, will not be able to implement this migration amnesty without the participation of civil organizations. It is very tragic that we have to leave, when the phobia of migrants is being used by the darkest of forces of our society. It is very, very worrying," Grafova said.

The bill follows a series of declarations by top-ranking officials that foreign-funded NGOs had allegedly played a key role in the popular protests that overthrew the governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in July said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were "political activities."

If passed into law, the bill would force all NGOs in Russia to re-register with a state commission and would allow authorities to closely scrutinize their finances.

The initiative, however, has drawn stinging criticism both in Russia and abroad, leading Putin on 5 December to order his administration to work out amendments.

So far, the Forum of Migrants' Organizations is the first leading NGO to announce its closure since the new bill passed its first reading. Grafova predicts many more NGOs will meet the same fate as her organization.

But not all other rights activists are as pessimistic.

Tatyana Kasatkina, the executive director of Russia's prominent human rights group Memorial, says the controversial bill has so far failed to dent her group's funding.

Kasatkina is even hopeful that the outrage caused by the bill will compel authorities to ditch it.

"In fact, Putin has now introduced a few changes. It is clear that the draft will not be considered right now because precise amendments have not yet been introduced into this law, and it will probably be a little postponed," Kasatkina said. "It will probably be considered next year, and, as many hope, they may even forget about this project for good, because it has had great repercussions both abroad and in Russia."

White House officials said U.S. President George W. Bush had expressed concern over the bill during a meeting with Putin in South Korea on 18 November.

On 22 November, NGO leaders called on parliament to reject the bill in a collective appeal signed by some 1,300 people, branding it "the most odious decision in the past 15 years."

Sergei Kovalev is a biophysicist who is credited with founding the first human rights organization in the Soviet Union in 1969. His work as an activist eventually got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was arrested and tried in Lithuania in 1974 on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." He was found guilty and served seven years in labor camps and three years of internal exile.

Kovalev was allowed to return to Moscow during Perestroika. During that time he participated in a number of human rights initiatives, including the founding of the Russian rights group Memorial, which focuses on the rehabilitation of victims of severe political persecution during the Soviet era.

He subsequently delved into politics, serving as a member of the Presidential Council in 1992. After being elected to the State Duma in 1993, and served as its human rights commissioner before being dismissed in 1995 due to his staunch criticism of the Chechen war.

He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on two occasions, in 1995 and 1996. Today Kovalev continues his activism, making the headlines as recently as November, when he was detained for participating in a demonstration against fascism.

Kovalev currently resides in Moscow, where RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Anna Kolchina caught up with him for an interview.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us how you started your human rights career?

Kovalev: There were many impulses that pushed me. To put it bluntly, the main impulse was shame, the desire to consider oneself a decent person. Everyone wants to have some basis for self-respect. This is what [writer and dissident Andrei] Amalrik called "to be a free person in a non-free country." This was an important discovery by the Soviet dissidents. Some of us believed that they formed a political opposition. This was a naive belief. It was the ethical incompatibility with the regime, with the horrors that surrounded us, and with the constant lies. In 1966, it was the trial of [writers Andrei] Siniavskii and [Yulii] Daniel. My first participation in a public campaign of protest had to do with this trial. Actually, not long before, in a conversation with a friend, I said: "What can you do in this country? You can't do anything! All you can do is gather some TNT and blow up their stinking building where they have their stinking congresses. But in that case, I would sink down to their level. This is why I will study science." But then they had the trial of Siniavskii and Daniel and I wrote my first letter of protest.

RFE/RL: In 1974, what were you accused of?

Kovalev: Oh, there were many things. My sentence contained 17 clauses. There was also an amusing allegation, concerning the "Gulag Archipelago." It was amusing because I was accused of disseminating this book, but really, I just gave it to a friend to read. The main clause in the sentence was about the "Chronicle Of Current Events." At the time when they arrested me, I was the editor in chief of the "Chronicle." It was a marvelous publication and it is not surprising that Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov considered it the most important phenomenon that came out of our country in that time. During the investigation, of course, I gave no testimony. I didn't want to participate in anything of the sort. In 1990, when I became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of what was still the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic), I had already visited many prisons, including those where I myself was detained. It was then that we sat down to make amendments to the Penal Code concerning correctional facilities.

RFE/RL: Please tell us about your work in Chechnya.

Kovalev: This is what human rights activists these days call "monitoring." I became the first plenipotentiary representative of human rights in the Russian Federation, and when the first war in Chechnya was nearing, I thought, "Can there be a more appropriate place for a human rights plenipotentiary?" So a small group, called the "Mission of the Plenipotentiaries," went to Chechnya. We reported a lot to what was then a society and press that was active and wanted accurate information about that horrible war. We reported what we saw with our own eyes, and did so in the most meticulous fashion. On 10 March 1995, the State Duma removed me from my post for my opposition to the war. As far as our successes in Chechnya are concerned, we cannot truly measure the value of our work. There is one definite result, however: Budenovsk. I don't know how many lives we saved when Shamil Basaev seized a hospital there, but I can say one thing, there were many. When Russian forces first stormed the building, some 80 hostages were killed. It is scary to imagine how many more would have died if they had continued to storm.

RFE/RL: Being a human rights activist must be a calling.

Kovalev: My destiny, embodied by the Soviet regime, bestowed upon me a curious and somewhat surprising profession. I was a fairly successful scientist and, perhaps, would have earned a PhD or something like that. But the regime said, "No, you're going to be a human rights activist." So that's what I became, and that's what I am to this day. I like this profession just as much.

A meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ended on 6 December without a final document, following Russian objections to a passage concerning its troops in a breakaway province of Moldova. The two-day conference took place amid Russian concerns about the organization's election-monitoring activities in former Soviet countries. RFE/RL spoke on 7 December with Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, about Russia's allegations that the OSCE holds double standards in its election monitoring.

RFE/RL: Mr. Rhodes, Russia has alleged that the OSCE has double standards in monitoring elections. Why would somebody say that the OSCE needs clear rules for election monitoring after so many years of operations?

Aaron Rhodes: I would be careful to assign any motives for these statements, but the fact is that they do have clear rules. What's rather frustrating about these charges against the election monitoring system of the OSCE is that they never present a shred of evidence or cite any concrete examples of where or how any double standards have been applied. These charges [against the OSCE] aren't very credible, because they are never associated with any evidence whatsoever. So one gets the impression that, maybe, the reason that the charges are made is that they don't like the results -- so they attack the process.

RFE/RL: Let's speak about the rules a little bit. You said that there are clear rules, but speaking in Ljubljana, Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov actually cited two examples of the kind of double standards, and I quote, "The organization's lack of clear rules led it to declare that fraud occurred at several polls, including those in Georgia and Ukraine." So what are the rules?

Rhodes: I would not consider myself an authoritative spokesman for what these rules are. I think you should ask the head of the ODIHR office, the [OSCE's] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador [[Christian] Strohal, to comment on these rules. I personally know that, for example, the individuals that undertake these election-monitoring operations are from all over the OSCE. They're from post-Soviet countries, Eastern European countries, from Europe, from Western Europe, from the Balkans, from North America. I find it hard to believe that the individuals charged with overseeing this process have some sort of political agenda, as they are professionals.

RFE/RL: This dispute resulted in the fact that there was no document adopted in Ljubljana. Some diplomats in Ljubljana were afraid, because it is the third time that the OSCE comes without any final documents, so they feel that the OSCE -- the top European human rights body -- is under threat of being ineffective. Do you have this feeling?

Rhodes: I'm not so sure if it makes any difference if there's a document or not. At the same time, I think that the lack of consensus in the OSCE about the usefulness of these objectives -- human rights monitoring and election monitoring processes -- is a serious problem. It's a challenge to convince all the members of the OSCE that this [election monitoring] is something good for people in the region, this is something good for the citizens, and this is something good for the stability of regimes in the region, who would submit themselves to this kind of scrutiny and therefore gain credibility. Regimes that are put in place by fraudulent elections are not stable regimes.

RFE/RL: But it really looks as if bodies like the Council of Europe, for example, and even now the European Union, are trying to be more active in establishing human rights standards and democratic standards that roused the OSCE recently.

Rhodes: But at the same time those organizations are operating on different principles. Also, I might add that in the Council of Europe they have some of the same problems.... The Council of Europe, as containing as it does Russia, and a number of other post-Soviet states � they also are blocked from doing anything about serious problems like Chechnya. A lot of the same paradoxes apply.

RFE/RL: Is it because Russia is blocking both organizations from being effective?

Rhodes: Yes.