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25.07.2008

On duty while humanity endures

   

Two prominent Russian human rights defenders – Ludmilla Alexeeva and Yury Orlov – were in Kyiv last weekend and gave this interview to the newspaper “24”.

Yury Fyodorovych, you fought the Soviet system, and the system has returned to modern Russia. Is that not depressing?

It was predictable. It’s a miracle that the system collapsed. It was so closely constructed that you pulled a thread and it crumbled. When Gorbachev wanted changes, the system was already unable to take them and collapsed and that was a miracle. And the fact that it is presently going backwards, even partially, is unfortunately more natural since there isn’t yet a generation of democratic leaders of a State type. When I met Yeltsin, he said openly that he was trying to be democratic but only the next generation would be true democrats. Unfortunately the next generation has proved worse.

Ludmila Mikhailovna, as a member of the President’s Human Rights Council you know Putin. Is he indeed worse?

I saw two Putins. The first time I spoke with him was at the end of 2002 – he’d been President for two years then and was still a perfectly normal man, it was still interesting for him. The second time was in December 2003 and he already looked like a bronze monument to himself. He didn’t forget for a second that he was the President and that his prop came from bureaucrats and enforcement officers, and not society. I didn’t like that Putin.

And yet you work on the Council. And Yelena Bonner actually criticizes you for that, saying that human rights activists shouldn’t collaborate.

Human rights activists are not a party. You have to work with those who can get things moving. Andrei Sakharov wrote to Brezhnev: “Dear [literally “respected”] Leonid Illich, would you like to declare an amnesty for political prisoners?  Do you think that he genuinely respected Brezhnev?  However if the result depends on a person in power, there is no sense in convincing one’s human rights friends that you need to call an amnesty. I need to convince those who I don’t like and who think differently.

Yet the majority of Russians, as the elections show, like Putin and Medvedev

Firstly, it’s television that makes politicians popular, and that is under total State control. You see Putin from morning till evening. People are simply being brainwashed, and they can’t counter it. Secondly, a large part of the population lacks political culture, and they don’t connect who they voted for with what happens after the elections. However I’d say one thing: the Public Opinion Foundation, a Kremlin outfit incidentally, two years ago published the results of a survey as to whether people counted on help from the State in their everyday life. 47% of the population said no, only on themselves. and 25% said that they not only couldn’t count on them, but that the State was very much in the way. Add up 47% and 25%!  So 25%, I’m convinced, don’t vote for Putin, and 47% do still but they’re thinking. “They look after themselves and we ourselves”. Not counting on the State means stopping being a “sovok” [person with a Soviet mentality – translator]. We’ve made this first step. In order to become a civil society and democratic country we need to make the second step and learn to defend our interests not separately but together.

Yet why, in your opinion, did the people who went for changes in 1991 accept partial restoration of the regime in 2000?

Yury Orlov: The democrats didn’t think about the people when they were carrying out reforms. Even with their words they didn’t express concern about people. During the crisis [in 1998 – translator]. people developed cynicism with regard to any political party and a negative attitude to the word “democracy”. Moreover their perception of western ideas was to a large extent damaged by US foreign policy. It was quite incomprehensible. And now the economy is thriving, together with the possibility to earn money. People are people and they link this with Putin. It’s another question whether this would have happened too without Putin.

Ludmila Alexeeva: Yet you can only talk about the reanimation of the old regime if you watch television and that way draw conclusions about what is happening in Russia. If you live in Russia and especially if you’re involved in the human rights movement, you see that it would be absolutely impossible to turn back. It’s no accident that a law was passed which tries to place non-profit-making civic organizations under control. Do you know when the authorities began particularly putting pressure on us?  It was after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the events in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.  They openly said that the danger of civic revolution was not so much from political parties as from civic, human rights and youth organizations, and civic society in general. That’s because civic society cannot live without democracy. Civic society, regardless of the maximum pressure from the State is developing and the authorities are frightened!

Why is the opposition and its leaders so unpopular in today’s Russia?

Yury Orlov:  I think that they wanted a swooping victory. Yet how can you so rapidly convince people that democracy is good and Putin bad if then they weren’t able to feed their family and now they can? There are a lot of good people in the opposition, yet there aren’t any with State and political thinking so that they turn up in any part of the country and people listen to them.

How do you assess Ukraine’s democratic achievements?

Ludmila Alexeeva: It’s difficult for me to judge how developed Ukrainian democracy is, and I would be very surprised if it proved to be developed. However all those who come to Ukraine from Russia say that the air feels different here. At home there’s a cop with a baton on each street corner and he’s not holding the baton for decoration. Yes, an undeveloped democracy means that it can move in the opposite direction. You won’t have an imperialist State, for example, but you will have a nationalist one which is also not that attractive, believe me. Since I’m an elderly woman I remember what it was like under Stalin, I was 25 when he died. So the present regime is nothing to his. And if that one couldn’t endure, than this one won’t either. So you’ll get to democracy and so will we. You perhaps earlier. Incidentally, the quicker you do, the quicker it will be for us.

And in those countries you see as the bastion of democracy, do human rights organizations have anything to do?

Yury Orlov:  In the best democratic society you also have to defend human rights.  The problem of terrorism arose in America and Guantanamo immediately appeared, together with secret CIA prisons in the North of Poland, where the USA spends prisoners so that it’s simply to question them. Problems have begun in America itself with violations of the rights of those detained. All of this was discovered by American human rights activists. In any critical situation human rights violations can appear, even if there weren’t any until then. You need to be permanently on guard.

Human rights will have to be defended while humankind exists. They will come to an end only when the Solar System dies and there are no longer any people.

The interviewer was Serhiy Vysotsky, the newspaper “24”

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