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Friday, March 09, 2007

U.S. Issues Two Official Condemnations of Russia

Kommersant reports on the startling alienation of the world's most powerful country that Russia's incompetent, crazed leaders have provoked, despite having the loopy George Bush in the Oval Office still "looking into Putin's eyes." Can you imagine what will happen when Bush is out of office? Kommersant tell us that both the legislative and the executive branches of the government issued strong condemnations of Russia this week, including an elaborate formal report from the State Department condeming Russian human rights abuses. LR knows the Russian people well enough to know that they don't want to provoke the U.S. into another Cold War. This is the rogue policy of a rogue regime in the Kremlin. But who elected that regime? The Russian people. Who turned a blind eye to the abolition of local elections and the seizure of TV news and the energy industry? The Russian people. They cannot escape blame for the Kremlin's outrageous behavior, especially when they have been so recently taught the brutal lesson of the Soviet era.

First the Congress

In a Wed. resolution, the House of the U.S. Congress urged Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO,
Reuters reported.
In addition to those two former republics of the former Soviet Union, the House called on Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to move toward NATO membership. According to Rep. John Tanner, the House signaled to those countries that the United States appreciates their efforts to join NATO and thinks they are moving in the right direction. In this respect, the Munich speech of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is worth mentioning. Vexed by potential strengthening of NATO, Putin said its expansion has nothing to do with upgrading the alliance or with ensuring safety in Europe. To the contrary, it is a serious provocation that brings down the level of mutual trust.

Kommersant also reports on action by the executive branch:

On Tuesday the United States Department of State released its annual report on human rights
practices in countries around the world. In the report's introduction, its authors mention Russia as a country where the human rights situation is poor. The main conclusion of the part of the report that focuses on Russia is that the situation of human rights in Russia continued to deteriorate in 2006. Among the most blatant abuses cited in the report are the growth in the number of contract killings, increasing political pressure on the institutions of civil society, increased control over the media, and the inflaming of interethnic discord, which the authors of the report believe include the government-sponsored campaign against Georgia.

The State Department's human rights report, which is released every spring, has traditionally included an extensive and sharply critical section on Russia, and this year is no different. According to the report for 2006, the Russian Federation currently has "a weak multiparty political system with a strong presidency," and the most notable characteristics of Russia's political system last year were "continuing centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, political pressure on the judiciary, intolerance of ethnic minorities, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, continuing media restrictions and self-censorship, and harassment of some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)." All of this has led, in the opinion of the report's authors, to "an erosion of the accountability of government leaders to the population."

Much of this criticism was found in the report for 2005 as well, but this year's version does have a few novelties up its sleeve in its 92 pages of material on Russia. Much of this information was gleaned from official sources, as well as alternative sources that for one reason or another did not appear on the radar of the Russian media. This wealth of material makes this year's report the most detailed analysis by the State Department to date of the situation of democracy and human rights in Russia.

One of the most significant pieces of evidence that the authors cite as testimony to the deterioration of the human rights situation in Russia over the last year is the "contract-style killings of pro-reform Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for uncovering human rights abuses in Chechnya."

The situation in Chechnya, which figures prominently in the report, is described by the authors as "a climate of lawlessness and corruption." They add that "the government investigated and tried some members of the military for crimes against civilians in Chechnya; however, there were few convictions and reports concerning the number of convictions differed." The authors maintain that it is impossible to rely completely on official Russian statistics when evaluating the human rights situation in Chechnya, since in terms of the number of convictions for such crimes, the statistics offered by the president's administration "[do] not make note of the fact that the majority received suspended sentences."

The Russian armed forces are also the target of sharp criticism in the report. According to the report, the "security forces were involved in additional significant human rights problems," including not only abuses in Chechnya but also the poor situation in the Russian prison system and in the army, a record of numerous arbitrary arrests and detentions, and corruption in law enforcement.

The report's authors blame corrupt law enforcement officials in Russia for contributing to the continued practice of human trafficking in 2006, saying that "journalists, politicians, NGOs, and academic experts stated that corrupt elements in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law enforcement bodies facilitated and, in some cases, controlled trafficking."

Another significant portion of the report on Russia concerns "political prisoners and detainees." In January of this year, when work on the State Department's report was being wrapped up, US Congressman Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a scathing letter to Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Barry Lowenkron, who is responsible for coordinating the writing of the report. In his letter, Congressman Lantos requested that Mr. Lowenkron include in the report a sentence alleging that "Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are political prisoners," and he claimed that the former Yukos executives "are imprisoned not for any crime that they committed but for their political activities, which threatened Putin's totalitarian regime."

After the contents of Mr. Lantos' letter were reported in the media, it was uncertain whether the Republican administration would listen to the demands of the Democratic congressman, who has a reputation in Washington as one of Russia's fiercest critics. Eventually, the State Department agreed to include the opinion that Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev are, in fact, "political prisoners," although the rhetoric was toned down somewhat from the congressman's letter: according to the report, "Human rights organizations and activists have identified various individuals as political prisoners: Zara Murtazaliyeva, Mikhail Trepashkin, Valentin Danilov, Igor Sutyagin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, and Svetlana Bakhmina. All remained imprisoned at the end of the year."

It has become something of a tradition for the State Department to devote a large portion of its human rights report on Russia to the freedom – or lack thereof – of the press. According to this year's report, 2006 continued a downward trend: "Government pressure continued to weaken freedom of expression and media independence, particularly of major national networks. Media freedom declined due to restrictions as well as harassment, intimidation, and killing of journalists."

In analyzing trends in the Russian media, however, the authors of the report did find some positive developments to note. "In August, after a year of rumors that the government controlled company Gazprom would purchase the independent business daily Kommersant, 100 percent of the paper's holding company was sold to the general director of Gazprominvestholding, Alisher Usmanov. There was not been a discernible shift in the newspaper's editorial slant by year's end," says the report.

According to the report, one of the most disturbing trends observed over the last year in Russia is the inflaming of interethnic hatred, which the State Department believes reached a culmination in "an anti-Georgian campaign against the approximately one million Georgians who live in the country." "Officially, the Georgians were deported for violations of migration legislation," say the authors of the report, before stating their opinion that "law enforcement officials were reportedly instructed to step up actions against Georgians."

Yesterday evening Kommersant was the first to elicit commentary from the Russian side concerning the report. "Without a doubt, we have serious problems," acknowledged Ella Pamfilova, the chairwoman of the Presidential Council on Human Rights. "I am in agreement with the majority of the findings in the US State Department's report," she said, adding that "it is necessary to determine whether the string of murders is related by a common thread." Concerning the anti-Georgian campaign, she told Kommersant that "in general, we love the Georgians, they are our kin. We protested against the projecting of political problems onto human beings. Thank heavens we remembered that in time." "Overall, I thank Condoleezza Rice's department for its steadfast attention to the situation in our country. We will continue to work. The most important thing right now is not to fix the situation, but to learn to avert human rights violations," concluded Ms. Pamfilova.

"I agree with everything in the report," said Lev Ponomarev, the director of the movement "For Human Rights." "But there are more situations that Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues still know nothing about and do not understand," he added. "The anti-Georgian campaign was initiated by the president himself, and when xenophobia and nationalism are allowed by the top [level of government], that is extremely dangerous," he said, noting also that "political murders are happening with frightening regularity." He concluded with the opinion that "what is going on in our country is not human rights violations – it is insanity."

Russia Occupies Fifth Place in Rankings of Countries with the Most Negative Images Abroad

Yesterday the BBC World Service released the results of a survey conducted in conjunction with GlobeScan and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). In the poll, almost 40,000 people in 27 countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Finland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States) were asked to evaluate the global influence – positive or negative – of 12 different countries: Great Britain, Canada, China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United States, and Venezuela, as well as the European Union. The highest negative scores were received by Israel (56% have a mainly negative view of the country, while only 17% have a positive view) and Iran (54% negative, 18% positive), followed closely by the US (51% negative, 30% positive) and North Korea (48% negative, 19% positive). Fifth place went to Russia (40% negative, 28% positive), which was viewed by respondents as "largely negative."

According to the poll, the most favorably assessed countries (or entities, in the case of the EU) in the world were Canada (54% positive, 14% negative), Japan (54% positive, 20% negative), the European Union (53% positive, 19% negative), and France (50% positive, 21% negative). The BBC notes that Russia, China, and France have slipped in the rankings since 2005 and 2006, while the US has been accumulating increasingly negative evaluations. Steven Kull, the director of PIPA, commented that "people around the world negatively assess countries that are noted for their use of military force. The list of such countries includes Israel and the United States, who recently employed military force, and North Korea and Iran, who are seen as countries that are developing nuclear weapons."

The State Department's Criticism of Russia

In the US State Department's report on human rights that came out of February 2, 2000, the section on Russia was 80 pages long. The chief accusations against Russia were the use of the registration system to restrict the freedom of movement enjoyed by the country's citizens, as well as the torture and slaughter of civilians in Chechnya.

In the report on 2000 that come out on February 26, 2001, Russia took up 66 pages and was mainly criticized for the war in Chechnya. Numerous civilian casualties and "unregulated floods" of refugees were noted.

The report published on March 4, 2002 again focused mainly on the situation in Chechnya in its 65 pages on Russia. The support from the authorities for the move by Gazprom and Lukoil to acquire control over NTV and TV-6 was also mentioned, and it was pointed out that the courts ruled in favor of these companies under pressure from the government. Finally, the adoption in December of a Labor Code that "weakens the role of independent professional unions" also drew criticism.

In the report from March 32, 2003, only 56 pages were dedicated to Russia. Beside Chechnya, the main problem was seen to be pressure on the media from the authorities, particularly the arrests of journalists from "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" and Reuters. A positive mention was made of the implementation of a Criminal Procedural Code that bans arbitrary arrest.

The report for 2003 was released on February 25, 2004 and allotted 64 pages to a discussion of Russia. The report criticized the elections to the State Duma that took place in December 2003 as not being "in accordance with international standards," particularly since the pro-Kremlin United Russia party received preferential exposure on television, to the detriment of other parties.

On February 28, 2005, a report featuring 64 pages on Russia was published, in which the State Department criticized "the continuing consolidation of political power in the hands of the Kremlin" by means of abolishing direct elections for regional governors and suppressing "oligarchs who represented a potential focus of political opposition to the president."

In 60 pages of the report released on March 8 of last year, Russia was slammed for the politically-motivated proceedings against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, and Svetlana Bakhmina, as well as for pressure from the authorities on the media and for growing xenophobia in the country.

Kommersant offers readers the following commentary on these developments:

Many international institutions have opinions on the situation of human rights in Russia and in other countries. Organizations and entities that deal with this subject (and more than a few times a year, mind you) include the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Amnesty International, and both chambers of the American Congress. However, the annual report by the US State Department stands out. In contrast to these other institutions, the State Department's opinion reflects that of the leadership of the world's only superpower. So it stands to reason that the weight of its judgments is correspondingly more significant.

For that reason, the world anticipates the annual human rights report much like Americans themselves await the last day of the tax season, which comes at almost the same time. In the one situation, you pay your taxes and can then breathe a sigh of relief. In the other, you find out your diagnosis and then act accordingly.

Even a disappointing diagnosis from the American State Department of democracy in this or that country doesn't mean that the US administration will immediately take steps to curtail its relationship with the "problem patient." Still, however, the State Department's conclusions will not be without consequences.

The topics discussed in the State Department's annual human rights report unavoidably figure in the course of almost every significant talk between US representatives and their colleagues around the world. And in order to avoid the topics that they find unpleasant, America's partners (assuming, of course, that they want to consider themselves as such) will have to make concessions on other issues that are important to the Americans.

Thus, for the countries that it mentions, the end result of the US State Department's report on human rights is to up the ante in negotiations on other issues with Washington. For example, several years ago Russia was obliged to take a maximally favorable line on a fortified US presence in the former Soviet Central Asian republics in exchange for silencing (or at least muffling) American criticism of the situation in Chechnya.

It turns out that a peculiar division of roles exists between the State Department and the White House. The first points out problems that are painful for America's partners to acknowledge, while the second offers constructive cooperation aimed making these problems magically disappear as long as certain other issues are addressed.

So it is probably no accident that, for Russia, the day of the release of the hard-hitting report on human rights by the State Department coincided with an article in the New York Times that quoted a senior White House official concerning the Bush administration's new plan for cooperation with Russia. The plan foresees more private and active consultations with Moscow on fundamental problems around the world, as well as more personal contact between representatives of the two countries.

It is impossible to separate these two faces of American politics. And to take offense at one of them, or to see in them some kind of plot, is, to put it mildly, short-sighted.

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