US chides Kremlin over human rights and jailed activist in a new turn for the Obama Administration

frontpageingressimage_ingressimage_lev-Ponomaryov-1.-1..jpg Photo: Amnesty International

On a wider scale, Washington has called on Russia to uphold human rights after jailing prominent rights activist Lev Ponomaryov.

William Burns, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, and former US Ambassador to Russia, in an interview with Russian news agency Interfax, called it “regrettable” that he was unable to meet Ponomaryov, who is serving a four-day jail sentence.

“I should note that it is regrettable that Lev Ponomaryov, who was supposed to be at the meeting, was not able to attend,” Burns told Interfax.

Ponomaryov has been jailed twice in as many months for taking part in opposition political demonstrations.

Russian President Dmirty Medvedev, during a trip to Yaroslavl, today tried to soft peddle the criticism saying. “There has practically never been democracy in Russia (…) There was no democracy when we were ruled by tsars and emperors and there was no democracy in the Soviet period so we are a country with a thousand years of authoritarian history.”

“I would really like those who are going to assess Russian democracy to pay attention to our history and the path we have taken over recent years and for them not to judge us too harshly,” he said, according to Russian and Western media.

“We have a very young democracy, an imperfect democracy,” he said.

Burns’ comments represent an escalation of chiding the Kremlin for its human rights record by a highly placed US officials since the administration of Barack Obama took office. After 9/11 the Bush administration and then Russian President Vladimir Putin had a tacit agreement that the US would refrain from commenting on perceived human rights abuses in Russia.

Bush and Putin agreed that any alleged rights violations in Russia were tied to the global fight on terrorism, so the US president remained mum on issues like Chechnya, onerous procedures for NGO registration, beatings and murders of activist and independent journalists and for official incompetence.

Break with US policy of silence

The new comments are a sharp break with the policies of the Clinton Administration, which was a frequent critic of both the war in Chechnya, as well as the handling of the Nikitin case by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, the KGB’s successor.

Ponomaryov, 69, was found guilty by a Moscow court on Tuesday of refusing to obey police orders during an opposition-organised August 12 protest against Moscow’s mayor and his handling of a recent heat wave.

“The freedom of assembly is very important to the United States and very important to any democratic society,” Burns added.

Ponomaryov, the head of Russian For Human Rights organisation and a founding member of Memorial, was due to meet Burns and President Obama’s Russian affairs advisor Michael McFaul on Wednesday, along with other human rights activists.

“I was invited to a working breakfast with Michael McFaul. The meeting will take place, but not with me,” Ponomaryov told Interfax by telephone from the police van taking him to jail.

McFaul, Burns and US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle held a breakfast meeting with seven Russian rights activists, but no Russian officials, Svetlana Gannushkina of rights group Memorial, told AFP.

“Of course, talks should be four-sided, with officials and civil society representatives from both Russia and the US,” Gannushkina said.

Disconnect between rights activists and officials

Those present included veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeya and Sergei Kanayev, the leader of a popular drivers’ campaign against officials who flout traffic rules, Gannushkina said.

Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov, who in a controversial appointment heads a Russia-US joint council on civil society, did not attend the meeting, Sakharov museum director Sergei Lukashevsky told the news agency.

“While it is good that we are holding talks, which expresses respect for Russian civil society, each time it is a sad sign that dialogue between Russian civil society and the Russian authorities is very weak,” Lukashevsky said.

The activists discussed the prison death of a young lawyer last year that provoked an outcry over jail conditions, Lukashevsky said.

They also talked about Russia’s crackdown on opposition protests held on the 31st day of the month to protest against violations of the right to freedom of assembly enshrined in the country’s constitution.

The latest unsanctioned protest in central Moscow was roughly broken up by riot police on August 31 and at least 70 activists were detained.

The US state department later raised “concern” over the crackdown to the Russian government.

Will Medvedev heed the call?

Medvedev, during his tenure, has shown an on again, off again relationship with opposition groups, independent journalists and environmentalists.

Late last month, Medvedev intervened on the behalf of activists for the preservation of the ancient Khimki Forest, though with officials are planning to build a high speed road to St. Petersburg. The issue, which has long simmered with violence against activists, came to a head last month when a 3,000-strong demonstration was held on Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

The rally was followed the next day by a U2 concert that featured saving the forest, and the huge international band invited Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk, and activist for the forest, to join them on stage. The next day, Medvedev ordered a halt to clear cutting in Khimki for “further consideration.”

In February of 2009, Medvedev personally offered his condolences to the editor of the independent Novaya Gazata, when one of its journalists, Anistasiya Baburova, and crusading human rights lawyer and contributor to the paper, Sergei Markelov, were gunned down in central Moscow right after an opposition news conference given by Markelov.

Medvedev also reinvigorated in the same year, at least in word, the Presidential Council on Human Rights, a group that liaises the Kremlin with NGOs, which was abolished during Putin’s reign. But many who sit on the council have told Bellona Web in interviews that the move has come to nothing but an act of political expediency, and that Medvedev has not fully reinstated the line of communication.

Charles Digges