MOSCOW -- Amid uproar over their ouster from President Vladimir Putin's Human Rights Council, several Russian rights activists have warned of a backslide on political freedoms in the wake of a major reshuffle that leaves the advisory body shorn of its most critical voices.
Putin overhauled the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on October 21, removing several members who have criticized his government and replacing its head, Mikhail Fedotov, with a former TV presenter many see as a Kremlin loyalist.
The four council members who were dismissed had played active roles in shedding light on alleged abuses by security forces and courts against participants in a wave of protests for free elections that rocked Moscow this summer. Human rights lawyers Pavel Chikov and Yevgeny Bobrov, political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann, and Ilya Shablinsky, an expert on electoral rights, had met with protesters and attempted to protect their rights.
Some say that is what paved the way for them to be sidelined in the latest decree.
"The Human Rights Council demanded a reaction to the conflicts and scandals that unfolded" during the protest wave, political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told the Russian daily Kommersant on October 22. "So, a decision was taken to downgrade these queries and complaints."
The ousted members, all of whom are outspoken and prominent, were clear in their views that the reshuffle was far from a simple initiative to bring an influx of fresh faces.
Chikov said the Human Rights Council had long annoyed Putin and his government, despite its role as an advisory body with little power to shape policy.
"The country's leadership is less and less tolerant of irritants. It wants comfort, a soft seat, and pleasant words. It doesn't want to hear unpleasant ones," he wrote on Facebook.
Shablinsky said that he had become a thorn in the authorities' side, and that his dismissal did not come as a surprise. As a possible reason for the decision, he cited the opposition he voiced to the exclusion of independent candidates from Moscow city council elections on September 8 and the crackdown on the street protests over the summer.
"There were plenty of reasons to oust me," he told Kommersant.
Rumors had long swirled about Fedotov's imminent removal from the council, which performs a largely symbolic role but often succeeds in drawing attention to human rights issues and bringing pressure to bear on the authorities -- even if repercussions are rare.
Officially, Fedotov was dismissed because at 70, he had passed the age limit for service in the federal government. But Kremlin critics suspect the council's head since 2010 was sidelined for other reasons.
"This wording about his reaching the maximum age does not hold up," Grigory Melkonyants of independent election monitor Golos told Kommersant. "The tenure for presidential advisers can be extended until the end of the presidential term."
Earlier this week, 30 of the council's 50 members signed a letter to Putin asking him to extend Fedotov's term, considering his "personal merits" and "unquestioned authority."
Among the new members added to the council is Kirill Vyshinsky, a journalist who edited the Ukrainian subsidiary of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency, and who returned to Russia in September as part of a high-profile prisoner swap with Kyiv. Reports suggest other current or former state media employees are among those slated for new positions on the council.
In an interview on October 22, the newly appointed head of the council, Valery Fadeyev, said he planned to focus less on political rights than what he called "social rights."
"I'm in no way diminishing the importance of political rights and freedoms, but I think social rights are not noticed enough," he told Kommersant. "People have too few opportunities to use their rights -- to a decent wage, to accommodation, to health care, etc. And I think this is no less important than the defense of political rights and freedoms."
When asked about the summer protest wave, Fadeyev -- a senior member of ruling party United Russia -- said he "wasn't particularly interested in it at the time" and "didn't look into it."
He appeared to praise what he said was a decrease in poverty levels under the Communist Party in China, and advocated for a "combination of effective democracy and a strong state" in Russia.
Following his appointment, anger among Russia's civil-society activists appeared to spill over into dissent within the Human Rights Council itself. On October 21, Tamara Morshchakova, a retired Constitutional Court judge who was not one of those dismissed, said she was quitting of her own accord. She cited the appointment of Fadeyev as the reason.
"I only know Mr. Fadeyev from his public appearances on TV," she told Kommersant. "And I've seen no favorable attitudes toward the problem of human rights whatsoever in his rhetoric."