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(Un)Civil Societies Report: September 10, 2003

10 September 2003, Volume 4, Number 23
ENTRENCHED CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSIONS MAJOR OBSTACLE TO DEMOCRACY. In Eurasia, at the center of attention for struggling oppositions as well as international donors fretting about deficits in democracy is the institution known as the Central Election Commission (CEC), the body responsible for supervising elections. Post-Soviet CECs have extensive powers and resources and far from serving as neutral agents ensuring impartiality, they have a great capacity to influence the outcome of the elections, legal experts say. They have evolved into a vehicle for the executive branch of government and the incumbents to remain in power. Most countries have some type of national electoral body, or appointed officials to supervise the counting of the ballot and to monitor such issues as campaign financing. In the former Soviet Union, they have become distorted by autocratic rulers feigning democracy. Efforts to try to reform these commissions have in fact helped to perpetuate an institution that is inherently flawed because nowhere are commissioners prepared to stand up to governments in power, election experts say. Leaders who are facing significant challenges to their power base in local and parliamentary elections always began to tinker with the national CEC to tilt it in their favor, as, for example, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is expected to do soon in appointing a new CEC that will affect the 2005 presidential campaign.

When foreign election organizations such as the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems make suggestions for reforms, they often propose substantial democratization of the CECs, as well as elimination of their power to make lock-step appointments of lower regional electoral bodies and thus put the "fix" in long before election day. If they cannot influence legal reform, democracy promoters such as the two party institutes of the U.S., the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, as well as their counterparts in Europe, devote considerable efforts to negotiating with both officials and opposition groups to open up the CECs to some opposition participation.

So much focus has been placed on getting opposition parties some presence in these commissions that many have lost sight of the fact that the frenetic struggle is itself a symptom of a basic dysfunction: the widespread loss of trust in government impartiality, based on more than a decade of experiences where government-controlled CECs preside over manipulation of the vote count and outright ballot-box stuffing. Opposition leaders believe that if only they can achieve a presence inside these influential bodies, they will help to deter reporting fraud and make it harder for the region's autocrats to steal elections.

In Western democracies and even transitional countries in other regions, the CECs are not as powerful or subject to so much scrutiny due to better public confidence in the mechanics of vote counts. In the CIS, "it is impossible to find a non-biased group -- everything is so politicized," one long-time observer of the region's many contentious elections concluded. Often, faced with discontent from the grassroots, the only way the governments can win the elections and keep themselves in power is by manipulation of the CECs. Indeed, the main difficulty in promoting democracy in the region is not so much the complexities of legal reform or slow development of political parties and civic organizations, but the desire of those in power to stay in power at any cost. They do this not only through control of the press and nomination procedures, but the tallying of the ballots. In many other countries, ballots are counted and announced immediately by an agency trusted by all parties to perform the function without interference. In the post-Soviet setting, publicizing the initial counts and final tally can be delayed for days, frustrating the efforts of opposition groups and international observers that would like to expose fraud.

In Georgia, opposition groups at first celebrated the intervention of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who evolved a plan initially accepted by President Eduard Shevardnadze that created a formula to make the CEC more representative for the 2 November parliamentary elections. The opposition obtained nine seats to apportion among themselves -- the majority -- while the government retained the right to appoint five seats. Most importantly, both sides agreed to having the chairman of the commission appointed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The plan was designed to prevent the ruling Shevardnadze-led bloc For a New Georgia from taking over all the seats, especially as the electoral landscape was confused by the presence of several parties that emerged last year as split-aways from the ruling Citizens' Union of Georgia. The Industrialists and the Union for Georgian Revival demanded more seats for their party instead of one because they had cleared the 7 percent hurdle in the previous parliamentary elections, reported on 9 July.

The carefully calibrated plan broke down not merely because of internal opposition squabbling. Groups that were not really considered part of the opposition and were not willing to burn their bridges with the ruling party, began to demand seats as "the opposition" and the true opposition's majority began to erode. "Today, each opposition leader claims to possess 'irrefutable evidence' demonstrating the hidden collaboration of the other opposition parties with Shevardnadze," Zaal Anjaparidze, an NGO leader wrote in the Jamestown Foundation's "Russia and East European Review" on 22 July.

Once the game of trying to fix flawed CECs is accepted, then the most vexing issue can be how to make it representative of all the numerous opposition parties so that they can all make sure to count the votes from their own constituents. In Russia, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of the election commission, announced in May that a maximum of 20 political parties and blocs will be taking part in the December State Duma elections, but only three or five of them will be able to overcome the 5 percent threshold to get seats in the lower house of the Russian parliament, reported on 23 May. In many countries in the region, the presence of many parties, some indistinguishable from each other and in the process of splitting, has been used as an excuse to provide less access to the CECs by the opposition.

A glance at the official website of the Azerbaijani CEC provides some insight as to how these bodies are able to wield such influence. For one, the chairman of the CEC is a supporter of President Heidar Aliyev and has held the position since 1992. Azerbaijan, under pressure from the international community, developed a formula for CEC seats to be proposed by opposition blocs, the parliament, and the government. But because the parliament is heavily controlled by the administration, and the government has created loyalist parties posing as opposition, the deck is stacked in favor of the powers-that-be -- and their heirs.

Although the CEC published a list of 12 approved candidates for the presidential elections, visitors to will look in vain for the biographies of most of the opposition candidates. Profiles are provided of President Aliev, from the New Azerbaijan Party, and his son, Ilham Aliev, from the Voters' Initiative Group, and several others. With a month remaining before national elections, no biographies are available for Isa Gambar of the Musavat Party, Etibar Mamadov of the National Independence Party, or Ari Karimli of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party. While such omissions could always be explained by programming glitches or failure of parties to meet editorial deadlines, perusal of minutes from recent meetings of the CEC illustrates a deeper problem.

At a 2 September session, court actions again Hafiz Hajiyev, chairman of the Modern Musavat Party, Karimli, and Mamadov were proposed for their alleged offenses against the "honor and dignity" of the president and other candidates. A warning was issued and the complaints were sent to prosecutors and the Justice Ministry for further investigation. Voters would have to visit alternative sites of independent newspapers or English-language sources such as the IFES program in Azerbaijan ( to learn more about the electoral process, proposals for reform, and find links to opposition parties.

Unafraid of the libel laws invoked by the CEC about other candidates, in a 3 September television address, Ilham Aliyev praised his father, saying he was responsible for the existing stability in Azerbaijan today, and said he would maintain the current political course. He attacked Karimli as being "weak-willed," Mamedov for exhibiting "political faithlessness," and ridiculed Gambar as "an unsuccessful postgraduate student who could not write his thesis in 11 years," reported on 9 September.

Both domestic and international groups that have struggled to make the CECs more representative and then -- in theory -- more transparent and less prone to fraud say that even when they fail, gaining even a few seats or a slightly opener process is worth it. Those left completely outside the process, or who decide to boycott elections governed by such rigged commissions, are not heeded, even by international democracy supporters who often say that local opposition groups need to practice building coalitions, gaining constituents, and participating in elections. After more than a decade of such futile "practice," however, opposition parties have increasingly taken to the streets to organize mass demonstrations or even turned to extremist movements outside of the political process because of the lack of democracy.

Unlike the Caucasus and Central Asia, where opposition or quasi-opposition parties have gained seats on the CECs, in Belarus, despite several years of effort and intervention by the OSCE and other international agencies, opposition groups are still blocked entirely and have no seats on the CEC. The shadow of Viktar Gonchar hangs over the political scene in Minsk as a warning to upstarts. Gonchar was an opposition leader who once served as chairman of the CEC that challenged Lukashenka's manipulation of the 1996 national referendum. He disappeared in 1999 and is widely believed to be the victim of a government-sponsored abduction and killing. Currently, an opposition coalition has made an offer of dialogue to the government to discuss electoral law reforms to make the CEC more representative for the 2004 parliamentary elections, but, according to the opposition and the government, they are unlikely to succeed.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, President Lukashenka seeks to bar the opposition completely from the CEC (or perhaps pack it with a few pro-government members of the "opposition") to avoid a situation where enough dissident candidates could win parliamentary elections. Dangerously for the president, that would mean they could block the president's plans to hold yet another referendum on the constitution to enable him to run for president again in 2006.

While success cannot yet be claimed, the high-profile interventions by Baker and the persistent efforts of the OSCE, as well as democracy institutes and NGOs, have made some inroads for beleaguered oppositions. This fall in the Caucasus brings yet another test of the will of the international community to stand up to dictators as well as the capacity of local oppositions to keep on "practicing" democracy with such flawed institutions as the CECs. It will also be a chance to see whether voters are willing to keep on participating in ballots that have been structured to be unfair long before election day.

SAKHAROV MUSEUM UNDER ATTACK FOR CONTROVERSIAL ART EXHIBIT... The Sakharov Museum in Moscow -- part of a complex established by the family and colleagues of famed Soviet dissident and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov -- has been at the center of a controversy over religion and art in recent months. Earlier this year, religious believers who said they were offended at provocative works of art burst into the museum and destroyed the artworks, leading to court battles that have left the museum vulnerable to serious charges, local and international media have reported.

Even long-time supporters of the Sakharov Museum and its related programs have expressed concern about the wisdom of displaying art works that, in their emotional intensity, were roughly equivalent to the hostility stirred by Andres Serrano's 1989 photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine for some believers and officials in the U.S.

The Russian exhibit, titled "Caution! Religion," opened on 14 January, showing such works as an icon-like painting daubed with the word "vipers" and a hole where the head would have been, enabling visitors to stick their head through the opening, much like the instant photographs with famous personages available to Muscovites on the Arbat, a traffic-free thoroughfare popular with tourists. One painting was styled after a beverage commercial with the face of Jesus.

On 18 January, six men from a Russian Orthodox church in Pyzhi, burst into the museum and ransacked the exhibit, spray-painting or destroying many of the 45 pieces of art. They scrawled the word "sacrilege" on the wall. Police were summoned and arrested the intruders, but eventually released them pending trial. Rather than condemning the violent defacing of museum property, the church's pastor, Father Aleksandr, said the exhibit itself was indeed a "sacrilege" and equivalent to the destruction of a church. His sentiments were echoed by other church leaders and some major media.

The incident may have been indicative not only of the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, but what Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovskii recently called a "quasi-Orthodox leftist populist movement" in describing the war for influence over President Vladimir Putin between two factions in the Kremlin. There is no direct evidence of any government sanctioning of the raid on the Sakharov Museum, but the attack is part of a pattern of increased attacks on liberals, using demonstrative acts such as the museum action to score political points. Priests denounced the museum and church members have begun a letter-writing campaign. The State Duma even passed a resolution condemning the museum and the exhibition's organizers, "The New York Times" reported on 2 September. Instead of upholding the right of a museum to chose its exhibitions and display them without interference under the law on freedom of conscience and religion, the courts not only released the vandals, but announced that an investigation into the museum should ensue on charges of "incitement of racial and ethnic enmity" for alleged affronts against Russian Orthodoxy. "The museum is now the enemy of the people," Yurii Samodurov, the museum's director, was quoted as saying by "The New York Times."

To Western eyes bombarded by provocative images, the items in the Russian exhibit might appear tame. But they were perceived as highly offensive by some believers. A poster by Aleksandr Kosolapov, a Russian emigre artist naturalized in the U.S., shows Jesus on a Pepsi advertisement announcing, "This is my blood." Sculptor Alina Gurevich used vodka bottles to create a church, a reference to the tax-exempt status the Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed in the 1990s.

The museum's organizers believed the exhibit would provoke thought and commentary on the growing power of religion in society, but weren't expecting it would lead to court actions. Now the prosecutor has confiscated the works of art and the curator, Arutyun Zulumyan, has been forced to go into hiding to avoid harassment. Last week, the court announced the formation of a commission of experts to determine whether the works incited hatred, a commission characterized as unfair by museum director Yurii Samodurov because it was not made up of art experts. If found guilty, under Article 282 of the criminal code ("incitement of ethnic, racial, or religious enmity"), the organizers could face heavy fines and up to three years of probation or even three to five years in prison if aggravating circumstances of a crime committed by an "organized group" are found. In sponsoring the resolution in the Duma, Unity deputy Aleksandr Chuyev defended the vandals, saying they were preventing a worse crime, (the crime of incitement), and that beliefs can be expressed as long as they do not offend Russian Orthodox believers, "The New York Times" and "The Moscow Times" reported.

Stepping into the controversy, Sergei Kovalev, a former political prisoner and liberal Duma member, denied that the exhibitors of the museum or the officials of the Sakharov Center, where he serves on the board, intended any incitement. "They [the art works] are aimed against the fashions of Orthodoxy. We often see party members holding a candle in their right hands on television. We know that Aleksii II [patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church] was an agent of the KGB, working under the pseudonym 'Drozdov.' The artist is conveying his feelings from what he sees. However, it is naive to think that the court will take these reasons into account at a trial. Experience has shown the opposite," the liberal daily quoted him as saying on 27 August.

Lev Levinson, an expert on Russian legislation, says annually 60 people are tried under the article, according to, often from extremist organizations. The cases are conducted with procedural errors, Levinson said, and people are jailed not so much for their actions as defined under the law as for their membership in an organization. The Russian law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations also contains the right to freedom of conscience and belief and also the right not to profess a belief, and by implication, to criticize religious beliefs. The law envisions some restrictions on free expression of criticism, however, as it bans the display of texts and statements offending religious sentiments "near religiously sacred objects." The law does not specify what "near" means.

The museum has suffered attacks in the past. In May 2002, unidentified vandals spray-painted a mural of Andrei Sakharov outside the museum with anti-Semitic and obscene slogans. Last May, Moscow city officials ordered the museum to take down a panel on the side of its building which read: "War Has Been Going On In Chechnya Since 1994. Enough!" City officials threatened the museum with a fine of 45,000 rubles ($1,469), reported on 21 May.

...LEADING TO COMPARISONS OF SIMILAR CONTROVERSIES IN THE WEST... In analyzing the attack, compared the vandalism of the Sakharov Museum with the controversy stirred up in the United States over the display of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courtroom, which led to demonstrations by religious conservatives and eventually a Supreme Court decision ruling against their placement, and finally removal of the stone tablets by police. Unlike the U.S. courts, says commentator Anton Nikolayev, in August the Russian courts ruled on the side of "militant clerics" and threw out "hooliganism" charges against defacers of art. Investigating further, discovered that a museum guard, whose statement formed the basis for prosecutors to open criminal investigations, later refused to take part in the court hearings, either under pressure or possibly because the court had ruled that her testimony was "insufficient" even before the court opened. Police and press reports providing ample details were ignored by the court, says, and information concerning the damage or destruction of the art works, estimated at about $15,000, did not reach the judge. Far from denying that the destruction took place, Mikhail Kuznetsov, the lawyer for the men who vandalized the museum, successfully argued in his clients' defense that they were attempting to stop the graver crime of incitement of hate.

If President Putin's currently proposed amendments to the criminal code are passed, punishments for the crime of incitement will be reduced to two years' imprisonment, and only calls to action will be prosecuted. Levison advocates handling such cases in civil rather than criminal proceedings because he believes the common practice in such cases is for judges to take their cues from prosecutors and they are often subject to political manipulation.

In the U.S., Senator Alphonse D'Amato tore up the infamous Serrano photograph on the Senate floor while denouncing tax-supported funding for museums that displayed such works. In 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic, froze $7.2 million of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's public funds for a painting that he as well as religious groups had deemed offensive to the Virgin Mary. Yet ultimately, the courts ruled that the city of New York had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, and restored the museum's funding.

Two Russian emigre artists living in the U.S., Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, famous for their provocative exhibits in the style known as conceptual art, recently sparked heated commentary in Israel and abroad for a show at the Yeshiva University Museum titled "Theory of the Big Bang." The paintings included a swastika superimposed over a star of David. No action was taken against the artists or curators, but even in the art world, where critics are prepared to tolerate performance art of various styles, commentary was negative. In the 1980s, the artistic duo's ironic portrait of Hitler in the celebratory style of socialist-realism was slashed by an irate viewer. Komar and Melamid did not repair their Hitler portrait or seek damages, saying the gash in the canvas was part of the art work's "legend." In the same way, the Sakharov Museum curators are leaving the works defaced as a commentary of their own about the limits for cultural exploration in Russia.

Even some long-time supporters of the museum question the judgement in mounting the exhibit given prevailing religious sentiments. The show was not part of the permanent collection and appeared to stray from the themes of the history of political dissent, human rights, and the war in Chechnya for which the Sakharov Center is known. Sakharov, raised as a Russian believer, like most Soviet scientists, was an agnostic, and apart from defending the rights of some individual persecuted believers, was not active on religious issues in his lifetime. His "Memoirs," published in English in 1990, contain a telling comment that may indicate the Sakharov Center was operating within its mandate with the show. "I don't believe in any dogma and I dislike official churches, especially those closely tied to the state, those of a predominantly ceremonial character, or those tainted by fanaticism and intolerance. And yet I am unable to imagine the universe and human life without some guiding principle, without a source of spiritual 'warmth' that is nonmaterial and not bound by physical laws," Sakharov wrote.

...AS SAKHAROV'S WIDOW AND FAMILY ARE PILLORIED, SOVIET-STYLE. Recent press attacks on Sakharov's widow, Elena Bonner, and the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, may be a bellwether of both a less tolerant attitude from the Kremlin to dissent and an effort to co-opt a national hero for political purposes. The attacks on the museum have been followed by separate articles in the press on Bonner and her family, written in a style reminiscent of the vitriolic tones of the Soviet era, when Kremlin officials constantly sought to discredit Bonner in every way, while sometimes preserving favorable elements of Sakharov's scientific career for "the glory of the Motherland."

Under the lurid headline, "Elena Bonner Led My Father To His Grave," an article by Olga Khodayeva appeared on 14 August on, a tabloid-like Internet site that is the online version of "Ekspress Gazeta," mainly filled with scandalous stories about Russian celebrities. The feature story appears to be based on an interview with Dmitry Sakharov, Andrei Sakharov's son by his first wife, who died of cancer.

The author rings all the chimes of the official propaganda legend built around the Sakharovs in the 1980s, which were part of an officially sponsored program of harassment. If it weren't for his marriage to Bonner, said the propagandists, Sakharov might have stayed with science and not embarked on his controversial public campaign for human rights. In the same vein, quotes Dmitry attacking his father's decision to go on a hunger strike in the 1980s to compel the Soviet government to give an exit visa to the fiance of Bonner's son. It would be understandable if Sakharov had fasted to stop nuclear testing or demand democratic reforms, reports Dmitry as saying, but it appeared self-centered if it was only for the sake of an exit visa for a family member. Any type of anti-nuclear or democratic protest in the 1980s would have been viewed by the government as just as objectionable as demands for recognition of the right to freedom of movement.

The site ran a photograph of Dmitry Sakharov standing distraught over his father's body in the morgue, with a caption claiming that it was a rare occasion when he was able to bid farewell to his father alone without Bonner, who had allegedly kept Sakharov's children from his first marriage away. The article also made a number of specious claims, including a description of Bonner supposedly digging in a garbage dump to find a used tea set to present to her grandson as a wedding present.

While the sentiments of Dmitry Sakharov and other members of the family of Sakharov's first wife may be genuine, the use of the interviews at this time and the appearance of the article on a relatively minor website and its reprint in "Sovietskaya Rossiya" on 19 August suggest more than a family quarrel. They appear to be an effort to discredit Bonner and her handling of her husband's legacy, much in the vein of prejudiced Soviet-era attacks on her, which often tried to portray Sakharov as an honest Russian patriot simply misled by Bonner, who is of Jewish and Armenian descent. The tabloid article appeared soon after 12 August, the 50th anniversary of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb, which Sakharov is credited with developing. The author also criticized Bonner's campaign against the city's plans to erect a statute of Sakharov as "incomprehensible to the Slavic mind."

In Bonner's view, not only is the investment in the expensive monument ill-advised, a government associated with such human rights violations as attacks on civilians in Chechnya and restrictions on the media should not be allowed to cloak itself in the mantle of Russia's most famous democrat of the modern era. The articles are indicative of efforts in some quarters to preserve and sanitize the features of Sakharov's persona suitable for the government -- his scientific accomplishments and even his leadership on democratic reforms -- while air-brushing out of the story the one person who most symbolizes his legacy, his widow, who remains outspoken on issues of democracy and human rights.

Responding to the tabloid piece, which gained wider currency by being reprinted in the pro-government daily, Edward Kline, president of the Sakharov Foundation in the U.S., released a copy of his 24 August letter to Yurii Samodurov, the museum's director, saying that the article by Khodayeva contained "numerous libels" against Bonner. To counter some of the misstatements in the article, Kline noted that the Sakharov Foundation in the U.S. does not have paid staff or board members and is a separate entity from the Sakharov archive, a project at the Massachusetts-based Brandeis University, and the Moscow-based Sakharov Foundation, the parent organization of the museum and Public Center. In commenting on the various allegations in the article about Bonner's alleged undue influence over Sakharov, Kline pointed out that Sakharov had appointed Bonner as his literary executor. "His trust in her was absolute," Kline wrote, citing the last paragraph of Sakharov's memoirs. "She is the only person who shares my inner thoughts and feelings.... She is a great organizer, and serves as my brain center." To offset allegations that Sakharov's children were left to starve, Kline explained that Sakharov's children from his first marriage in fact received "substantial bequests" from royalties from Sakharov's books, whereas Bonner's children did not. Kline also denied Khodayeva's claims that Aleksei Semyonov, Bonner's son from a previous marriage, referred to himself as "Sakharov's son."

Countering Khodayeva's account of Dmitry's claim that Sakharov didn't care enough to visit his daughter Lyuba when her first infant died shortly after birth, Kline cited Evgenii Feinberg, one of Sakharov's colleagues at the Physics Institute, who "recalls how emotionally upset the usually reserved Sakharov was by this family tragedy." As to the questioning of Sakharov's motive for hunger striking to gain permission to leave the Soviet Union for the fiance of Bonner's son, Kline recalls from Sakharov's "Memoirs" that he saw this fast as part of a larger advocacy. "It was a struggle not only for our children's life and happiness, not only for my own honor and dignity, but also for every human's right to freedom and happiness, for the right to live in accordance with one's ideals and beliefs, and, in the final analysis, it was a struggle for all prisoners of conscience."

INTERNATIONAL. The UN's Department of Public Information (DPI) conducted its annual conference for NGOs from 8 to 10 September, on the theme of "Human Security and Dignity: Fulfilling the Promise of the United Nations." The site contains a webcast of the conference and an online discussion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, and ensuring environmental sustainability (

DPI publishes the "Chronicle" magazine of news and views by those in the UN community. The latest issue contains articles on water scarcity in Tajikistan and HIV in the CIS.

REGIONAL. Workers in Central and Eastern Europe have become much more productive over the past decade, and have narrowed the gap with their Western counterparts. But the "catching-up" process is now slowing down. Those are among the findings of a new report by the International Labor Organization.

REGIONAL. Readers can follow regional elections online at the site of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems at and its related database project at, as well as, the site of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

IRAQ. Is the use of weapons reinforced with depleted uranium a health hazard in Iraq? The U.S. government and others say depleted uranium is safe, but questions persist. High levels of radiation have reportedly been found in areas of Baghdad where U.S. forces used armor-piercing ammunition fortified with depleted uranium.

IRAQ. Special Report: "Leading Shi'a Comment On Al-Hakim's Assassination."

RUSSIA. The Russian parliamentary campaign officially began on 3 September, with the publication of a presidential decree confirming 7 December as the day voters will cast their ballots for both party lists and individual deputies to form the 450-strong lower house, or Duma. The current Duma is largely perceived as Kremlin-controlled and the upcoming election is not expected to wield any surprises. Still, the political atmosphere is heating up.

RUSSIA. The site of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation in the U.S., with links to the Russian foundation and related groups. In English and Russian.