Human Rights Work in Putin and Medvedev's Russia

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, May 11, 2009

Tanya Lokshina did not set out to put her life in danger as a human rights campaigner in Russia.

A decade ago she was earning an advanced degree in comparative literature at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., comparing Bulgakov and Molière. To make some extra cash, and taking advantage of her fluency in Russian and English, she took a job helping to catalog the Andrei Sakharov archives, then housed at Brandeis.

One thing led to another, and Lokshina, 35, found herself back in her native Moscow as deputy director for Human Rights Watch. What started as a sidelight has become, though Lokshina is not so presumptuous as to say so, a vocation.

"It can't be just a job," she says during a recent visit to Washington. "When there are people dying around you, and some of them are friends -- it's not just a job."

As the Obama administration prepares for a July summit at the Kremlin, the nature of the Russian regime and the possibility of constructive cooperation with it are very much up for debate. Pessimists note that the regime is more opaque than ever -- outsiders do not know even whether the president, Dmitry Medvedev, wields real power -- while its army is illegally occupying parts of neighboring Georgia. Optimists say that recent official statements indicate an eagerness for better relations with the United States.

"The signals are completely mixed," Lokshina agrees.

On the one hand, she says, it has been "a horrifying year." The murders in January of her friend Stanislav Markelov, 34, a human rights lawyer, and a young reporter who was with him; the beating of human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, 67, in March; the assassinations in Vienna and Dubai of opponents of the Kremlin-installed ruler of Chechnya; the continuing repression of free media and civic organizations; the political trials of businessmen who have crossed the regime -- it all makes the situation appear "absolutely catastrophic," she says. "Out of control."

On the other hand, she notes, Medvedev has formed a human rights council, listened seriously to its concerns and promised to consider amending the law that has been used to shut down and control advocacy groups. No one knows whether the president -- as opposed to former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin -- enjoys any authority. But, Lokshina says, "I would give him the benefit of the doubt, for the time being. . . . It's important for him to implement his rhetoric, which is very good."

As then-president Putin choked off more and more freedoms, the Bush administration was first oblivious, then impotent. Because of Guantanamo and associated abuses, Lokshina says, "no one asked what the United States could do. The high ground was lost, and so was influence."

Obama's new course at home, she says, has changed that equation. The beating of Ponomarev took place on the day of Obama's meeting with Medvedev in London, and "it was immensely important" that Obama put the event on their agenda. The Russian regime cares about its image abroad, and so if Obama wants he can have an impact on human rights and its protectors, she says. "The best way to do it is not to lecture Medvedev, but to raise it -- raise it as one partner would with another."

Lokshina talked with Markelov the night before he was murdered. When an acquaintance called her the next day to say that the lawyer had been shot in the street, she was incredulous.

"I just laughed. He was one year younger than I am, he had two young kids, very alive, very vibrant," she says. "The sort of guy you cannot imagine in a coffin."

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