Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 12

Should local governments play a role?

By Ilya V. Malyakin

No one in Russia today — neither the opposition nor the "party of power" — denies the importance of human rights. One attempt to remedy the problems that have piled over the decades has been the creation of human rights commissions. The first was set up by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. In 1993, a Human Rights Commission was created at the federal level by Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Most recently, such commissions have begun to be created in Russia’s regions.

In a decree dated June 13, 1996, President Yeltsin called on regional governments to set up bodies with functions analogous to those of the presidential Human Rights Commission. The president’s move was enthusiastically received by some Russian human rights organizations, who welcomed the idea that representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be included in the new commissions. Other human rights activists reacted with dismay, however. They argued that activists would not be able to maintain their independence and freedom to criticize if they became members of government-sponsored commissions and that conflicts of interest between local administrations and NGOs were inevitable. (1)

The Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) was enthusiastic about the idea of participation in regional human rights commissions. It helped NGOs in dozens of regions to organize meetings and nominate candidates. Lists of nominees were given to the regional heads of administration. Materials on organizing the work of the new bodies were prepared and sent to the regions.

In most places, the formation of human rights commissions took place without serious conflict between independent human rights activists and the local leaderships. In Chita, Irkutsk, Nizhny Novgorod and Orel oblasts, representative NGOs were immediately invited to work on the commissions. In other regions, however, such as Lipetsk oblast, commissions were formed exclusively on the basis of government recommendations, and no account was taken of the opinions of local NGOs. The MHG expressed concern that such "puppet" commissions would be unable to monitor human rights in their territories and might in fact discredit the whole human rights movement. The MHG suggested that, in places where independent activists were excluded from the local commission, they should set up their own, alternative commissions.

The process of forming a human rights commission in Saratov oblast, which is well known to the author, is a case in point. The Saratov Human Rights Commission was, in fact, created twice. The first attempt was made shortly after the presidential decree and was carried out by the president’s representative in Saratov oblast, Petr Kamshilov. The commission was formed so quickly and secretly that NGOs were unable to react in time. In any case, the commission was clearly intended to be merely cosmetic since it was composed almost entirely of officials of the local administration and law enforcement agencies. This provoked considerable criticism and, by the end of 1996, it was clear that a new structure, with different members, would have to be formed. This time, independent human rights activists managed to take part in the process, and, by December 27, when, on the initiative of Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, the issue of creating a new Human Rights Commission was raised at a session of the Oblast Duma, their proposals were already prepared. These took account of recommendations from the presidential administration in Moscow, which in turn took account of the opinions of the MHG.

The Saratov Duma deputies did not want to adopt all of Moscow’s recommendations, however. Most importantly, they cut the size of the commission from twelve members to ten. Among those "cut" turned out to be one of Saratov’s oldest and most active human rights activists — the leader of the "Solidarity" non-party human rights center, Aleksandr Nikitin. Nikitin’s candidacy was vehemently opposed by Communist Duma deputies. The other candidate "cut" was Nadezhda Kuznetsova, an activist in the women’s movement who chairs the Inter-Regional Association of Women Lawyers. Kuznetsova’s candidacy was opposed by oblast minister of labor and social development, Valentina Bobrova, who said Kuznetsova spent most of her time in Moscow and that "we have enough lawyers of our own."

Aleksandr Lando, senior lecturer in criminal procedure at Saratov State Law Academy, was appointed to chair the commission. Vladimir Novoselov, who heads the department of financial law at the same academy, and Nikolai Makarevich, chair of the Oblast Duma’s Committee on Legality, Security, the Fight Against Crime and Protecting Human Rights, became his deputies. Arkady Krasikov, head of the department of criminal law at the State Law Academy, became the commission’s secretary. The other members were Tatyana Pryakhina, senior lecturer in constitutional law at the State Law Academy; Lidiya Filippova, chief editor of the department of letters and sociological research of the Saratov State Television and Radio Company; Aleksandr Nikolaev, senior lecturer in the departments of philosophy and political science at Saratov State Economics Academy; Mikhail Klopyzhnikov, adviser to President Yeltsin’s representative in Saratov; Elena Markelova, a lawyer; and Nikolai Troitsky, professor of history at Saratov Pedagogical University. Makarevich was the only member of the commission who had until then ever been engaged in human rights activity.

Lando’s appointment as chair aroused the most controversy. Though he is a well known lawyer, he is not known for his desire to join the ranks of the human rights activists; indeed, he has a reputation for defending the interests of the government. In the past, he has clashed with independent human rights activists in court. He recently defended the Oblast Duma when it was accused of illegally extending its power by a number of citizens; currently, he is representing the oblast governor, deputy governor, and minister of health, who are suing the independent newspaper "Saratovsky reporter" for defamation.

The commission had not been operating for six months before it became embroiled in its first scandal. In May, Professor Troitsky, who is well known for his progressive political views, resigned from the commission, saying there was no point in his remaining a member any longer. Troitsky declared that "The regime now ruling Russia will not permit the creation of real human rights commissions, since it has raised crimes against humanity, unknown even in Stalin’s and Hitler’s empires, to the level of state policy." As examples of such crimes, Troitsky cited Yeltsin’s 1993 fire-bombing of the Supreme Soviet, the war in Chechnya and "the deliberate genocide of Russians" when "mortality catastrophically exceeds the birth rate." "In such conditions and under such a regime," the professor declared, "a Human Rights Commission has as much point as a symposium on chastity in a brothel."

Saratov’s human rights activists did not particularly approve of Professor Troitsky’s ostentatious step, however. In their opinion, it revealed his political inexperience and naivete. They argued that, had Troitsky stayed on the commission and argued his case, he might have had a beneficial impact on its work. Aleksandr Nikitin thinks the important thing is first to try to resolve the problem. Then, if one fails, one can say, "I put the issue up for a vote, but it was defeated." What one should not do, in Nikitin’s opinion, is pull out of a fight before it has even begun.

Nikitin believes that, even in its present form, the regional human rights commission can do some good. For example, he fought for many years without success to secure the right for the public to attend court proceedings. Until recently, only those directly involved in the case were allowed to attend the trial. Now, thanks to the human rights commission, this right has been established in Saratov oblast. Nikitin has clashed with Lando in court and has a rather negative attitude toward that side of Lando’s activity. He is nonetheless inclined to give a positive assessment of Lando’s role as commission chair. Nikitin praises Lando’s persistence; faced with a concrete violation of human rights, Nikitin says, Lando will worry at it until it is resolved. Nikitin thinks, too, that the "most worthy people" are on the commission — "I simply can’t imagine anyone better." The fact that he himself is not a member does not bother him, and he does not intend to try to set up an alternative commission. Lando, he says, is open to dialogue and has invited independent human rights activists to attend commission sessions. In fact, Nikitin thinks, "If I had been invited to be a full member of the commission, that would have been a sign that I was doing something wrong. The fact that there were objections to my candidacy means that they know us and are forced to take us into account."

Lando believes the role of human rights commissions is to monitor the actions of local governments, but rejects the argument that this can only be done from outside. "We have heard the idea that these commissions must be in opposition to the government… But a majority of us voted against such a formulation of the question… We intend to cooperate with the government," he says. Nikitin is inclined to agree that, in present circumstances, government-sponsored commissions stand a better chance of success than independent ones. "The regional administration can act lawlessly without any restraint," Nikitin argues. No one has the power to control it. Therefore, it has to control itself. A commission working in association with it is a barrier to lawlessness. One-third of the people who appeal to the commission get their questions resolved — and that’s already good."


(1) Izvestia, June 5, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert