Do not provide a Front for Pretend Democracy!
Oleg Orlov (left) and Sergei Kovalev
On Tuesday, 15 May, two prominent Russian human rights defenders –Sergei Kovalev and Oleg Orlov published an open letter in which they call on members of the Human Rights Council under the Russian President to step down. This follows decisions by three prominent members: Yelena Panfilova, Svetlana Gannushkina and Dmitry Oreshkin to refuse to serve on the Council any longer.
Sergei Kovalev and Oleg Orlov stress that they will respect any decision their colleagues make, but feel they must present their thoughts on the subject “if only because both of us at various times were on similar consultative structures under the President of the RF and both left for reasons similar to those presented here.
Without cooperation with the authorities, it is extremely difficult for human rights organizations to work fully. Such work requires constantly approaching the authorities at different levels with recommendations, applications, demands, requests, expert assessments and so forth. “
They explain that many believe that you shouldn’t reject this cooperation with the authorities since it can help to improve the human rights situation as a whole or defend an individual’s rights. They agree but with some qualification.
“With pretend democracy the authorities constantly use cooperation with civil society and structures created for such cooperation specifically for imitation, as a screen, curtain, decoration, hiding the reality, the authoritarian nature of the state system. The harm from such cooperation, both for our common cause and for our organizations, as well as for the situation in the country clearly outweighs the possible positive results, even if we are talking about help to specific people.
The presidential “elections” have just passed. You could call them elections if that undertaking had met the requirements of equal, transparent and political competition, justice and honesty. There was none of that. Instead there was mass scale vote rigging during both the voting and the vote count. The civic movement whose main aim was to observe the elections has clearly indicated the scale of the vote-rigging and falsification. Our human rights community contributed greatly to this civic movement. Outrage over the rigging of parliamentary and presidential elections led to a mass protest movement which was essentially in defence of rights since it was based on the demand to observe human rights. Awareness is spreading in society of the present regime’s illegitimacy, both the President’s and the legislative body. This illegitimacy does not preclude dialogue between the public and the authorities, but it must be dialogue, in which the public are equal partners. Can a consultative body under the President serve as such a platform? We believe that it cannot.
For many years society was silent, now a significant part of it is prepared to fight for civil and political rights, using peaceful and non-violent means to create the conditions for the formation of a new – legitimate – Russian power structure. Without this there can be no real reforms which Russia so needs – judicial, police, army, penitentiary and others. The human rights society must take part in this struggle.
Will you be able, through your advice and recommendations, to influence the presidential regime so that it moves towards meeting the lawful demands of the protesters?
Influence as advisors under a person who gained his post through pretend elections? Under a person who took up office in the capital’s centre, cleared of its citizens and marked by mass unlawful detentions of citizens? Under a person whose political career was built on the systematic denial of the idea of human rights?
It would be naïve to hope for this.
More likely, by remaining in this Council, you who have devoted your entire lives to defending human rights, may do harm to Russian civil society, involuntarily help to legitimize an illegitimate regime. Regardless of how independent the Council is in its statements and actions, it will become a screen, a decoration, concealing the anti-law nature of the current regime. On the other hand, in the eyes of a considerable part of the civil movement your participation in the work of the Council could discredit the human rights community as a whole.
All of this could have highly regrettable consequences for the future of Russia’s civil society.
Sergei Kovalev is a former political prisoner, the first Russian Federation Human Rights Ombudsperson and presently the Head of the Russian Memorial
Oleg Orlov is Head of the Memorial Human Rights Centre