World Policy Institute – Putin’s Russia: The Human Rights Record

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The Post-Transitional Russian Identity:


Putin’s Russia: The Human Rights Record
A panel discussion with (in alphabetical order)

Mary Holland, NYU School of Law

Diederik Lohman, Human Rights Watch

Alexander Lupis, The Committee to Protect Journalists

Andrew Nagorski, Senior Editor of Newsweek

Moderated by Nina L. Khrushcheva (New School University)

On Thursday, March 10, 2005, New School University hosted “Putin’s Russia: The Human Rights Record” part of an on-going series of discussions presented by the Post-Transitional Russian Identity project. The focus of this panel was to examine the state of individual and civil rights within Russia today, and how they are affected by the policies of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

The Post-Transitional Russian Identity is a project sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and organized jointly by the New School University, The World Policy Institute and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

The panel featured Mary Holland, professor at the NYU School of Law; Diederik Lohman from Human Rights Watch; Alexander Lupis from the Committee to Protect Journalists; Andrew Nagorski, senior editor at Newsweek who has overseen the launch of the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine.

Mary Holland opened the panel discussion by looking at Putin’s record on human rights from a legal standpoint. She felt that his record is not only poor, but worsening. Holland gave some background on the state of human rights within the Soviet Union as a point of reference. Holland felt that the constitution produced after the fall of the Soviet Union did include some important provisions to protect individual rights. The problem today, however, is the use of law in practice as opposed to the laws as they appear on paper. Desires from the Russian government to centralize power, the ongoing war in Chechnya, and recent high-profile criminal cases like the prosecution of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky (former head of Yukos, Russia’s largest oil company) all have shown ways in which the legal system is being manipulated in a way which undermines human rights. Holland said that her Russian colleagues have told her this problem is compounded by a perceived lack of interest from western powers where the area of human rights in Russia is concerned.

Diederik Lohman began his remarks with two questions: does Putin’s centralization of power present a step back for human rights, and are democracy and civil discourse being undermined and silenced? Lohman felt that discourse was indeed being curtailed and that democracy today in Russia was “essentially dead”. These are the effects of Putin’s policy of centralization, which is also undermining the government’s ability to rule since by limiting discourse and dissent the government is blinding itself to the realities that exist within the country. He dismissed claims from the government that centralization policies were an effort to fight corruption and provide security, arguing that the polices lack mechanisims for accountability, something necessary in providing effective reforms.

Lohman was especially critical of recent moves to consolidate media and move it under the control of the Kremlin, particularly in the area of television. By providing only state-approved reporting, the media outlets were helping to insulate the government from the problems faced by the country (in particular against the situation in Chechnya) and denying it the ability to effectively respond to these issues. Lohman felt that Russian population in general would be less tolerant of the government’s actions (in terms of centralization, the war in Chechnya, etc) if they had access to a free and open press.

Andrew Nagorski started with some stories of reporting during the censorship-filled days of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. He said at that time he never would have believed that he would one day be showing off a Russian edition of Newsweek. But despite the progress that has been made, he felt there were some disturbing trends. He said the Soviet mindset of state-control of the media is still present within government officials today, as evidenced by recent moves made by the state to control Russian television networks. He did note that Newsweek Russia has not had any official pressure to shape its reporting yet, but that it was possible that this may occur in the future. The magazine’s editorial policy is to “live as if you have a free press, you do what you can.” He also discussed the unsolved murder of several journalists in Russia in the past few years, the most famous being Paul Klebnikov from the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine, and the ‘message’ this has sent to reporters in Russia. Ultimately though, Nagorski said he was trying to remain optimistic in regards to the future of the free press in Russia.

Alexander Lupis also addressed the topic of diminishing freedom of the press under Putin. He outlined some of the strategies and tatics the Kremlin has used in their efforts to control the press and shape public debate. He discussed how the government has tried to frame the war in Chechnya as an ongoing battle against terrorism. According to Lupis this has included direct instructions to journalists about how the war should be covered and even the possible staging of terror attacks to whip up public opposition to the Chechens. At the same time the government has aggressively targeted Russian media oligarchs, at times under the guise of tax enforcement, with the goal of bringing their media empires under Kremlin control. Lupis also talked about the 11 unsolved murders of journalists which have occurred during Pres. Putin’s time in office. The reoccurring themes of the panelists’ presentations were that the current government crackdown on media freedom in Russia reflects a Soviet-era mindset where all information must be tightly controlled by the state. This has the effect of insulating the government from the realities present in the country and distancing it from the people. At the same time, strict media control prevents the public at-large from fully appreciating the effects of the government’s actions. If the people had a more complete view of the current situation within Russia, they would likely have different opinions towards topics like Vladimir Putin’s presidency and the war in Chechnya.

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