UPDATE: Medvedev dusts off presidential rights council, appeasing critics and puzzling analysts

Дмитрий Медведев зачитывает Послание Федеральному Собранию Российской Федерации 5 ноября 2008г.

Publish date: February 11, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has revived a council of human rights advisors, the Kremlin said, in a move that follows a series of prominent murders and beatings of several journalists and a human rights lawyer and sharp criticism from the West.

Many activists have applauded Medvedev’s decision to reconstitute the council, but asked why the body had been allowed to lay dormant since Medvedev took over the presidency from Vladimir Putin in May.

The move has also prompted as much sceptical speculation about what leaf Medvedev seems to be turning over relative to the Russian human rights movement and the press – if indeed he is at all.  Whatever the case, it is apparent to analysts that Medvedev is trying to shore up the support of civil society organisations and opposition media for some purpose – though what that is remains at the moment unclear.

Bellona welcomes the principle of Medvedev’s recent overtures to the human rights community and the press, said Kristin Jørgensen, a senior advisor with Bellona’s Russia department, adding that the mettle of his conviction will be spelled out in deeds rather than words.

For now, there are too many anti-democratic procedures and legislative initiatives supported by the Medvedev government, said Jørgensen, to fully endorse his recent activities.

Among these are the draconian registration procedures for NGOs that were signed into law as amendments to Russia’s NGO law in 2006 have crippled or killed thousands of Russia’s civil society groups, and put the rest of them on the run.

The President’s Council for the Promotion of the Institutes of Civil Society and Human Rights was created by Putin in 2004 to improve the strained to non-existent ties between the government and civil society.

Journalist and lawyer murders bring outrage
But the council was disbanded when Putin handed the reigns of power to Medvedev in May 2008. The reconstitution of the council follows quickly on the heels of the beatings and murders of several journalists.  The most startling of these occurred on January 16th, when Anistasiya Baburova, a 25-year-old reporter for Novaya Gazeta, and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, 34, were shot dead in a brazen midday attack.

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have deplored this, and two other murders and two nearly fatal beatings of reporters that have taken place in Russia since November.

Novaya Gazeta is the fiercest Kremlin critical newspaper in Russia. The assassinations of Markelov and Baburova brought immediate international outrage, and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso expressed concern about the murders during a meeting with Medvedev last week.

Putin was swift to offer a colorful attack on the EU’s human rights policy.

But Medvedev seems to have turned the other cheek.

"There is nowhere where receiving the advice of such a council does not – for the development of the government and the formation of civil society – help to unite people with different positions," Medvedev said of his decision to revive the council in comments published on the Kremlin website.

"For us these processes (of creating a civil society) have proceeded in a very difficult manner," he added.

Praise for Ella Pamfilova
As head of the council, Medvedev re-appointed Ella Pamfilova, who headed the council under Putin, a move that was backed by the head of the powerful Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexyeva.

"It is a very good pick. If it was not Ella Pamfilova appointed as the Council chief, it would mean a totally different nature of the work of this agency," Alexeyeva told Interfax on Tuesday evening.

"I am glad that the council is again beginning to work. I cannot say that it worked quite efficiently, but we did manage to resolve some real problems and to align certain distortions," she said.

Puzzlement over Medvedev’s slow moves
Others were less quick to offer praise, and several of the members of the 36-member council complained in the press Wednesday that Medvedev had allowed it to languish by refusing to confirm its members.

"Why was he vacillating on this all year?" asked council member Svetlana Ganushkina in the Russian Business daily Kommersant. "All year there was no council, or more precisely, the council was in a state of dormancy."

But Pamfilova told Kommersant that it was important for civil society to work with the authorities during the current financial crisis and "divide the responsibilities between us and solve problems together."

Medvedev’s motives: olive branch or thorny rose?

Indeed, it will be difficult to draw the mighty opposites together after the damage wreaked on their relationship by the Putin administration.

It was, after all, Putin – Medvedev’s apparent mentor who plucked him from relative obscurity and installed him in the presidency – who signed in to law amendments to Russia’s law on NGOs in 2006, crippling thousands of them and closing down as many with arduous audits, tedious registration procedures and a calculated weeding out of those movements the Kremlin did not approve of.

Putin also slammed the door on foreign funding for foreign based NGOs with offices in Russia in 2007, winnowing down the list of those organisations who were able to receive tax free funding from abroad. Among those organisations who fell on this chopping block were the International Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin said Medvedev’s cozying up to opponents of Putin’s government could be serving one of two purposes.

“It is entirely possible that in the heat of (financial) crisis public opinion and even support are necessary to Medvedev, but it is not yet clear for what, “said Nikitin, who heads Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices.

“Maybe it will become necessary to change something in the government and set forth someone against Putin’s PR. On the other hand, it might be necessary to calm the people with the help of the Presidential Council in defence of Putin’s government – in either case, I think that Medvedev is warming up the Council and has moved himself closer to opposition media” for either of these motivations.

Getting religion?
Even while Medvedev fails to acknowledge the hash of the relationship among the press, the civil society sector and the Kremlin made by Putin, he does seem sincere in his overtures toward those entities that fell so heavily under the lash of his predecessor’s antipathy.

On January 26th, Medvedev visited Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov to offer his condolences over slain reporter Baburova and Markelov, who was also associated with the newspaper.

Muratov said in an interview with Bellona Web that Medvedev had contacted him for the meeting and the president’s sentiments were “absolutely sincere.”

During this meeting, Muratov said he had told Medvedev that the spate of violence against the paper’s reporters – four of which have died under mysterious circumstances since 2000 – had caused him to consider shutting the paper. Medvedev’s answer, according to Muratov, was: “Thank God the paper exists.”

In an interview with Council Chair Pamfilova and Medvedev aired yesterday on State controlled ORT Television One, Medvedev again evoked God in response to remarks by Panfilova.

“I think this council is unique, that is, there are no institutions like it in the whole world,” said Pamfilova. 

“In other words, it is an additional platform, a unique platform, so that, let’s say, people who on a whole number of issues represent the view of a minority should have an opportunity to have direct access to the president and an opportunity to express an alternative point of view that sometimes differs from the state’s position.”

Medvedev responded; “Thank God.”