The Human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament paid a tribute to assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya today, by hearing from four experts on the situation of fundamental freedoms in the Russian Federation. All four of them agreed that the situation was deteriorating, and that the crackdown on independent journalism, the centralisation of political power and the rise of ultranationalist groups constituted a grave danger.
Marie Mendras of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po), Paris, noted that "there is no serious debate anymore about the nature of the Putin regime. In the past three years, it has become more and more authoritarian, arbitrary, opaque, corrupt and unaccountable." Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairwoman of the Civic Assistance Committee, a civil-society group, agreed that "human rights are violated on a daily basis in Russia." She added that "police violence is part and parcel of the system," and that in practice, the Federal Security Service (FSB) "decides who lives and who dies, and who will or will not be assassinated." All participants noted the increasing atmosphere of violence, particularly against Chechens and Georgians in Russia.
Journalists under pressure
Macha Chichtchenkova, from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Paris, spoke about the rise of ultranationalist groups in the country that have been threatening civil society activists and journalists. She related stories of far-right websites that provide lists of people opposed to their views, and which call on their supporters to kill them, providing addresses and personal details of their opponents. Vitaly Yaroshevsky, Deputy Chief Editor of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper for which Anna Politkovskaya had been working, also spoke about pressure exerted on journalists. Following recent media acquisitions, "there are practically no independent media left in Russia," he said. "The heads of TV stations are clones of each other, who spread the regime's propaganda," he added, and "facts and commentary are inextricably linked" in their programmes.
What can Europe do?
Vytautas Landsbergis (EPP-ED, LT) said the Putin regime was sliding towards "a state of internal terrorism." He asked what the Union and the Parliament could do to help stop this trend. Ms Mendras replied that the EU should "not hesitate to draw lines in the sand," and insist that certain actions have appropriate consequences. She also urged politicians to maintain contacts with other parts of the Russian political system, not just the Kremlin. Ms Gannushkina urged the EU to "welcome fleeing Chechens" who have been placed in impossible circumstances by recent events. She also sounded a note of alarm, saying that the chances of any positive development were slim: "Russia is in danger of disappearing or exploding...and contrary to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, this would be a very bloody affair."