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Human Rights in Russia
With Sergei Grigoryants
Human Rights Activist and Head of the Glasnost Foundation

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

As President Bush prepares to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday, human rights is unlikely to top the agenda for the summit. However, Russia has been criticized recently for increasing restraints on the press and other violations of personal freedoms. Russian human rights activist Sergei Grigoryants took questions on the state of human rights, democracy, and press freedoms in the country.

Recently Grigoryants was detained at a Russian airport and questioned for five hours as he attempted to board a plane bound for Washington to attend a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Grigoryants, a veteran human rights activist, spent nine years in Soviet labor camps and prisons. He founded the country's first openly published independent journal, Glasnost, and is head of the Glasnost Foundation. A consistent critic of the current government, he is particularly outspoken on such issues as the wars in Chechnya and Putin's use of state security services.

The transcript follows:

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome Sergei Grigoryants to today's discussion on human rights in Russia. There have been many reports of restraints on the independent media in Russia recently, could you briefly describe some of the other human rights issues facing your country today?

Sergei Grigoryants: Actually, as in the Soviet time, the only independent source of information is Radio Liberty.

Other important issues are the government's fight against civil society and the elimination of almost half the non-governmental organizations in Russia; the fabrication of so-called "spy cases"; the creation of an offical pro-government, pro-Putin youth organization and the elimination of other youth organizations which appeared independently; the elimination of the majority of political parties and the preservation of only the three largest (and, incidentally, most government-controlled); the intimidation of foreigners who come to Russia to work, so that they will visit Russia less often; and others.

Fairfax, VA: Mr. Grigoryants,

It is no secret that our government has been opportunistically using "Human Right" as a tool to destabilize other nations such as Russia. Do you consider yourself a willing or unwilling pawn of our government?

Sergei Grigoryants: No. I am not a pawn of any government. And I don't think that human rights is only words for the government of the United States, or only a political game. Of course, the USA is not, as elsewhere in the world, populated entirely by angels, and everything in economics, politics and human rights can be used in political struggles, but in any situation the example of the United States in the area of human rights--the rights which American citizens exercise--is a very important goal in the development of any countries, first and foremost, Russia.

Fairfax, VA: What is the attitude of the average Russian towards individual rights? Given the 70 years that the Soviets worked to reinforce supremacy of the state, there must be a perception that such things are cosmetic, especially since the same people are still in charge. Did anyone go to jail for anything they did in the name of the state, no matter how debased?

Sergei Grigoryants: Nobody was arrested for those crimes, among them, for fabricated political accusations which appeared so often under Soviet power. Although tens of thousands of people, among them myself, were rehabilitated and absolved of those accusations which were advanced against us in Soviet times. Very many of those who fabricated these cases were not only not punished, but promoted. One of the closest advisors to President Putin, General Cherkessov, was the initator of political repressions in St. Petersburg, and now is the presidential representative for all of northern Russia.

Concerning the attitude of ordinary Russians, the majority of Russians, unfortunately, don't know how to defend their rights and don't understand the importance of human rights defense for their lives.

Washington, D.C.: It seems to me there are no "good guys" in Russia. Government, media, mafia are all intertwined and corrupt. The Russian people don't seem to care -- and why should they care about Gusinsky, Berezovsky et al? -- why should Americans care?

Sergei Grigoryants: Of course, Russians should think about this first and foremost. And they indeed do think about it. But in Russia right now it's a difficult, so-called "Time of Troubles" when the most active and rather bad people have ended up more visible, and good, law-abiding citizens have ended up more weak and less visible. But this does not mean that they don't exist or that there are few of them. It's simply necessary to do as much as possible so that they will be heard. And America is helping to assist. The victory of bad people is harmful not only for Russia, but is creating problems for the entire, interconnected world, including America. That is, it's our common interest.

Washington, DC: Recently the Russian Academy of Sciences has required scholars and institutes to report on contacts with and funds received from foreigners. What do you think of the reaction by some individuals, such as Roald Sagdeev, who suggest that this might actually protect Russian scholars and scientists from prosecution by the FSB?

Sergei Grigoryants: Just the same, it's a demand of the FSB. The Russian special services are attempting to intimidate the Russian intelligentsia and convince them that it's dangerous to have contact with foreigners. This is precisely why criminal cases have been fabricated against scholars such as Academic Danilov in Krasnoyarsk, Sutiagin in Obninsk, Shchurov and Soifer in Vladivostok, and several others. It's not going to protect scholars, it's intended to isolate Russian scholars from the world community.

Arlington, VA: Dobroe utro,

I am very concerned by the revival of "Eurasianism," especially among the military. It is as if this is replacing Communism as the official state ideology. Would you please comment on this.

And do you see any way to convince your compatriots that concerns for fundamental civil rights and accountability of the government officials are not simply part of a CIA-led Western plot to destroy "Holy Russia."

Sergei Grigoryants: I think that the new Russian "Eurasianism" is only a part of the nationalist movement which is being widened by the government and which can be thought of as the realization of Andropov's plans about the replacement of the communist ideology with a nationalist one and the replacement of the Communist Party as the ruling group by the KGB apparatus. For the time being, it's not very influential in military circles, which, it seems to me, are more concerned with the fact that the army is being ordered around by the special services than with questions of ideology. But potentially, of course, it's very dangerous.

The attitude towards human rights in Russia over the past ten years has changed somewhat in connection with relations with the West. At the end of the 80's and start of the 90's, there was an idealization of the Western way of life and human rights and defense of human rights. In the 90's, there was serious disappointment, in particular, because the Western governments gave too much support to Yeltsin's government--even going so far as to silently accept the war in Chechnya--and didn't pay attention to human rights. Over the past year, there's been a new change. The "thinking parts" of Russian society see a real possiblity of the rise of a new dictatorship in Russia, and the fear of this possible turn of events is forcing people to forget about the disappointment of previous years. The breakup of NTV was an important signal to Russian society of the possibility of losing those few values in the area of human rights which had been most realized, some with the help of the West.

Philadelphia, PA: Mr. Grigoryants,
Mr. Putin's popularity ratings are sky high right now, yet you claim rampant repression of human rights. how can you explain this disparity? wouldn't the Russian people want to expel Putin if they felt their rights were being infringed upon?

Sergei Grigoryants: Putin's rating is, actually, rather high. Although just the same we don't know exactly how he was elected, because there was no real opportunity to monitor the elections, and it's known that there were very serious violations. As far as repression is concerned, then in comparison with repression during the Soviet period, it's not yet very high, although it nonetheless is repression. But speaking of the people's attitude towards him, the Kremlin controls all the major radio and television channels, and uses it for propaganda purposes. There's practically no information about the repression of youth organizations, and with the exception of my foundation, the Glasnost Public Foundation, nobody is working on the issue. And moreover, the largest part of the population just doesn't understand what direction the country is moving in and what this could lead to.

Potomac MD: Most of the people in Russia are worried about their economic survival, not human rights. Six out of ten have nostalgia for the Soviet era. Do you sometimes feel the futility of your fight for human rights in Russia?

Sergei Grigoryants: It's true that people in Russia have difficult lives. They spend 60% of their income on food, and nevertheless are poorly nourished. But nevertheless it's incorrect to think that the defense of human rights is a privilege of rich countries, rich societies. In Russia the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers defend their sons from dying on the front lines or simply from the chaos in their military divisions; environmentalists are defending an entire generation from growing up amid chemical and atomic waste; we are trying to help people and their families who have been sent to prison on the basis of false accusations. These are all problems which are sometimes even more important than food. So to say that the defense of human rights in Russia isn't necessary is incorrect, and that position shouldn't be supported. The government is fighting with human rights organizations precisely because it doesn't want their influence in the country.

Mt. Rainier: Sir, is there any reason to believe that Putin will listen to the U.S., IF the U.S. even ventures to speak? Our government policy is, as always, based on money so I think there is little chance that it will say tsk-tsk to Putin. But he wants to be a dictator anyway, and is well on the road to it. I don't think he would listen to any power on earth.

Sergei Grigoryants: Of course, there is a very great danger of this. But nevertheless Putin understands that this would lead to an inevitable isolation of Russia and rather difficult relations with the rest of the outside world, not only with the USA. Finally, Russia has very many monetary and other financial interests abroad, and this could also be a very important means of influence on the Russian government. But anyway, we don't know how far Putin is willing to go in his pursuit of power.

New York, NY: Do you have an opinion about the UN vote that removed the US from the Human Rights Commission?

Sergei Grigoryants: I think that in the area of human rights, the USA, like other states, has done very good things and has made mistakes. I think that in the UN, far from all of what goes on there is compatible with the interests of human rights. And therefore, I think that there's nothing terrible in this, but nevertheless, the USA should return to this committee as soon as possible. Moreover in, the USA, the understanding of how important human rights defense is is growing again.

Washington, DC: Of the original collection of "Reformers", the only onme who hasn't been actively associated with corruption, nor signed on with a more popular grouping is Yavliksky and his Yabloko bloc. What is the situation with him? Honest remnant of reform, or just someone who's never been noticed yet?

Sergei Grigoryants: I think that the authorities would like to control Yaboloko more than they do today. But at the same time, the influence of this party in its aspirations to democracy is less than it could be. The reason for this is not only Yavlinsky's opposition to the Kremlin, but also due to the fact that he is a rather poor organizer and has not been able to assemble a good leadership team. This is, of course, a real pity.

Washington, D.C.: Can any media truly be "independent?" If it's not state-run, it is beholden to teh whims of the economic markets or a tool of its "charitable" backers like Soros or Turner.

Sergei Grigoryants: There is no absolute freedom for people, and there is no absolute freedom on earth for the media. The issue isn't that the media should be absolutely free, but that there should be a lot of them and that they should be comparatively diverse, so that they can express various positions. And then a citizen can recieve all the information he needs. Besides, in the western world, in Europe, there are legal restrictions on the influence of owners on the mass media. In Russia, the problem is that the mass media has again only one owner, and it's the government, and as a result, there's less and less reliable information.

Reston, VA: What is the status of religious freedom in Russia? I have heard about policies that require religious groups to register with the government, and I have also heard about proclamations coming out of the Orthodox church that are designed to maintain their offical supremacy while keeping other Christian and non Christian religious movements in check. Is this an accurate status of where Russia is on the question of religious freedom?

Sergei Grigoryants: Yes, there is a law requiring that religious organizations have to be registered with the state. Otherwise, they're not allowed to open a bank account, officially rent property, pay workers--that is, they practically have to work underground, illegally. This law is really being used by the Orthodox church which has exerted a lot of influence on the government in order to get so-called "destructive religious organizations" refused registration, in particular Eastern and Protestant ones. At the same time, as before the revolution, the Orthodox church is becoming a state church, which was recently confirmed not only in the appearance of Orthodox chaplains in the Army, and in the opening of Orthodox churches in Russian embassies abroad, without the same opportunity being offered to other faiths. It was precisely the state character of the Orthodox church that was one of the reasons for the revolution and the loss of the Orthodox church's influence, and now the church and government are making the same tragic mistake, as a result of which more and more people are leaving the Orthodox church for other churches.

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. Many thanks to Sergei Grigoryants and everyone who submitted questions.

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