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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Ms. Blair Pokes Mr. Putin Right in the Eye: You go, girl!!

God save the Prime Minister's Better Half! The New York Times reports:

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, July 17 — Cherie Blair, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, on Monday stepped into the debate over Kremlin pressures on Russian civil society, offering legal assistance to human rights and aid groups to challenge a disputed new law, members of the organizations said. The offer by Ms. Blair, a human rights lawyer, came at the end of the Group of 8 summit meeting here, during which President Bush and Mr. Blair tried to balance their shared interests with Russia and their concerns over President Vladimir V. Putin’s authoritarian tilt. Earlier this year, Mr. Putin signed a law requiring private groups, commonly referred to as nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s, to re-register and forbidding their use of foreign money for political activities.

Ms. Blair made the offer while meeting privately here with several of the organizations, which cheered her for expressing her support. Two participants in the meeting said that Ms. Blair told them British lawyers could offer assistance in appeals to the European Court of Human Rights and that she seemed sincere in her concerns.

“It was a symbolic gesture, and I think she really managed to get across that it was a matter of heart for her,” said Hanno Gundert, director of the German-Russian Exchange in St. Petersburg, which organizes exchange programs for young teachers, social workers, journalists and other professionals.

Dezire Deffo, the vice president of the African Union, a local organization, said Ms. Blair told the groups that she had not yet read the law but that she planned to do so, saying she was ready to assist with legal advice. “She said, I am prepared to help you if you need it,” Ms. Deffo said. Mr. Putin has said the groups sometimes serve as a cover for foreign intelligence activities and should not be allowed to influence Russia’s politics.

The organizations say that the accusation is groundless and that the law, which has created onerous new filing responsibilities, appears to provide a pretext for shutting down groups that the Kremlin deems a political threat.

Several Western nations and organizations have expressed concern that the law reflects a step back from Russia’s public commitments to become more democratic. The law is just beginning to be put into effect, and the organizations are waiting to see how it will be enforced and deliberating about whether they should mount legal challenges against it either in Russia or in Europe.

Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, an American-financed private group that provides grants to promote and strengthen democratic institutions in other nations, said in an interview last week that for the moment the groups the endowment supports are watching for the Kremlin’s next step.

“We are very worried,” he said. “If indeed they are going to move aggressively on this law, and they try to shut down these N.G.O.’s, then they will have crossed the line.” President Bush also met with civil society leaders when he arrived here last Friday, telling them he would bring up their problems during his private meetings with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Gundert said the public support by Western political figures is an encouraging sign. “It is very important to show that the situation is being observed by the international community,” he said. “The law has been passed, and now people are interested in seeing what it will look like in reality.”

Mr. Putin, in his own meetings with civil society leaders, said he, too, would review the law. LR: Putin also said there was not one single person in the whole FSB capable of planting bombs in Russian apartment buildings.

The Telegraph continues:

Cherie Blair goaded the Kremlin yesterday when she volunteered legal assistance to Russian campaigners seeking to challenge a law that imposes strict controls on activists.

The Prime Minister's wife was hailed as a heroine by Russia's browbeaten human rights community when she slipped away from the G8 summit in St Petersburg to meet some of the Kremlin's fiercest critics.

She was the only leader's spouse to break away from the official summit, leaving her colleagues as they toured a handicraft exhibition.

Downing Street made clear last night that Mrs Blair's visit had been officially endorsed and broke from its usual reluctance to endorse her activities.

"We do not hide the fact that we have concerns but we believe it is right and proper to engage with Russia in a broad range of topics," said the Prime Minister's spokesman.

But the gesture risked deepening a rift between Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin.

Over the course of the summit the Russian president has twice attacked the Prime Minister. On Sunday evening he accused Britain of "sheltering" terrorists by granting asylum to a Chechen rebel envoy. The previous night he had mocked the Prime Minister's difficulties over the cash for peerages scandal.

Mr Putin's barely concealed anger towards Britain was largely provoked after the British ambassador defied Kremlin instructions and gave a speech to human rights activists at an opposition forum in Moscow last week.

Following Anthony Brenton's appearance at the event, Mr Putin voiced disquiet that foreign countries were trying to "influence the internal balance of power in Russia". Mrs Blair's offer of legal assistance from Matrix, the legal chambers where she works, will irritate the Russian president further. Despite the likely problems, Mrs Blair pressed ahead with the visit organised by Human Rights Watch and Citizen's Watch, a St Petersburg group. Most of the meeting was conducted in secret but the offer of help came when discussions turned to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) law.

Critics say it gives officials the power to close groups critical of the government and imposes such draconian bureaucracy on operations that their ability to function is seriously hampered.

"She asked whether we intended to challenge the law at the European Court of Human Rights," said Yuri Vdovin, the deputy chairman of Citizen's Watch, who presided over the meeting.

"She mentioned that the chambers where she works could help us if we don't have enough resources."

George W Bush also met representatives from civil society last week but he was criticised after it emerged that many of the leading activists, particularly those most likely to irk the Kremlin, had been left out.

Not so Mrs Blair, who met members of a number of groups, including Memorial, which has infuriated the Kremlin by highlighting atrocities in Chechnya, and the Soldiers' Mothers Organisation, which campaigns against brutality in the army.

"As a human rights lawyer, I came here to hear your experiences and to celebrate the work you carry out," she told those assembled before the private session began.

"I believe passionately that civil society is very much a part of civilised society."

A Kremlin spokesman said: "We respect Mrs Blair's right to have her dialogue with civil society. LR: Isn't that generous of them? After all, they could have given her a green face like they gave to Yushchenko, or she could have even become another Starovoitova . . .

"The fact that she found such an organisation shows that the criticism that we do not have civil society and NGOs is not true."

Mr Blair said he had not discussed his wife's visit with Mr Putin.

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