Posted on Johnson’s Russia List, No.4437, 4 August 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the Johnson’s Russia List Website.
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From Pete Glatter firstname.lastname@example.org
The Wests human rights record, itchy and scratchy at best, has acquired a particularly loud Anglo-Saxon hiss with the rise of Vladimir Putin.
Lord Russell-Johnston, for example, who represented the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, returned to a press conference in Moscow from a day-trip to occupied Chechnya, just as the Russian offensive was about to reach its height, to give a verbal carte blanche for the pulverisation of Grozny. He now understood much better, he said, some of the things the Russian government had been trying to explain. The Chechen regime, he declared, had been corrupt and undemocratic and had failed to provide its citizens with proper education and health services (how this distinguished it from much of the rest of Russia he did not say). Although he was still in favour of a cease-fire in principle, in practice, he appreciated that there was no-one to negotiate it with anyway. It was field day time for the pro-Putin media in Russia, at any rate.
Tony Blair’s visit to Putin, less than two weeks before the presidential election, was notable, as Nezavisimaia gazeta pointed out (14 March), for the dramatic way in which western correspondents suddenly relegated Chechnya to the background. Under the front page headline “Blair boosts Putin”, the paper quoted Blair’s verdict on “Vladimir Putin’s Russia” (no English modesty there about which way the democratic process was going to go): “a strong power, where law and order reign, it is also a democratic and liberal country”.
Putin’s return visit to London the following month was, if anything, even more remarkable, as the business magazine Ekspert (24 April) was at some pains to point out. Explaining that London was the only major capital in western Europe where the wholesale violation of human rights by the Russian federal forces did not put a serious obstacle in the way of such an event, the magazine prominently quoted KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky: “Theoretically, it is not the Queen’s habit to drink tea with murderers who turn up with their hands stained with blood. This invitation is a real miracle for Putin’s reputation.”
A miracle for Putin has been a disaster for those at the sharp end of the struggle for words like democracy and law and order, which tripped so easily from Tony Blair’s lips, as three examples indicate.
Bending to the pressure, not least from such as he, the human rights organisation Memorial failed to make a stand in defence of the Chechen right to self-determination. As a result, Yelena Bonner, the grand old lady of human rights in Russia, felt obliged to leave the organisation to which she and her famous husband, Andrei Sakharov, had been dedicated.
At the last call, Sovetskaya Kalmykia segodnya, a crusading anti-corruption liberal and human rights weekly in a particularly tightly sewn-up province, was facing an uncertain prospect when its Ford Foundation grant runs out in September. The paper’s editor, Larissa Iudina, was murdered two years ago. Her husband has gone on producing the paper in a neighbouring territory with help from outside journalists before shipping it in to Kalmykia.
Irina Grebneva, another crusading female editor, has just hunger-struck her way through a 5-day jail sentence for “hooliganism” in the far east region of Primorye. Her crime appears to have been that she failed to delete the multitude of expletives from transcripts she published in her paper, Arsenievskie vesti (http://personal.primorye.ru/arsvest/N29/N29_10.html, and N30/N30_8.html) of tapes allegedly of the governor, the rather notorious Yevgeny Nazdratenko, and others apparently engaged in arranging the recent mayoral elections in Vladivostok (their man won). The electronic version of the transcripts includes an natty little montage entitled: “Project for a monument to the victors of the struggle against the voters of Primorye”. But the experience was no joke, as the authorities made clear from the start when they kept 57 year-old Grebneva standing up for six-and-a-half hours before taking her off to begin her sentence (http://personal.primorye.ru/bledniy/FOTO/foto.html).
While following the last story I recalled, not for the first time, the admiring if muted noises with which Blair’s visit to Russia was greeted at the time. Blair was defended against me by a specialist I generally admire and respect on the grounds that he hadn’t explicitly condoned the Chechnya offensive. The truth is that Blair’s support for Putin has betrayed the very people who really are trying to turn Russia into a “democratic and liberal country” where “law and order reign”.
Last updated: 29.3.2008