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An Alternative Year of France and Russia

KMO_101780_02514_1_t208.jpgAs you may be aware, 2010 has been declared the Year of Russia in France and the Year of France in Russia, aimed at deepening bilateral relations through “150 cultural and communications events, 38 economic projects and over 70 events in science, education, sports and youth exchanges.”  But apart from sending some wonderful museum exhibits back and forth between Moscow and Paris, what will the role be for the alleged participation of French and Russian civil society?  Feeling that they have been left out of the festivities, today in the leading French daily Le Monde, leaders of various human rights NGOs (including Amnesty, Reporters without Borders, and Memorial) authored an opinion article calling for an “Alternative” series of exchanges between real advocacy groups in both countries.  Below is an English translation of the editorial.

Le Monde, January 27, 2010

• The civil society is not invited to the celebrations of the Year of France and Russia”

• An ‘alternative’ program to shed light on a people whose freedoms are not respected

The historical ties between France and Russia are part of a long tradition of exchanges and mutual fascination. Our two countries have maintained cultural but also intense economic and strategic relations, which have seen moments of decline but, more recently, renewed strength.

The latest developments indicate without question a reconciliationof the two States in the sad circumstances of Realpolitik (sale ofmilitary vessels such as Mistral, signature of contracts in theindustrial and financial fields, rapprochements involving Total, EDFand GDF-Suez with Gazprom…). The fact that the state of law does notexist in Russia does not bother the major companies of the CAC 40!

In 2010, in order to celebrate their friendship and culturalproximity, France and Russia will honour each other by an ‘exchangeyear’. Prestigious art exhibitions, summit meetings, concerts andtheatrical performances, will offer the French and the Russians theopportunity to discover the delights of our respective cultures. Suchan initiative cannot be criticized as such.

Except that this bright initiative, like an obscured sun, leaves in the dark an essential dimension.

The civil society was not invited to the celebrations, norrepresented, or very poorly so. In doing so, one of the most vividdimensions of Russia’s reality is cut off, the most tenacious and mosthumanistic side of it.

For us, representatives of several organizations defending human rights, we cannot leave
unspoken realities that are often disturbing. Precisely because Russia,like any nation, can not be confined to its official representatives,its cultural monuments and single-voiced spokespersons.

For this reason, in order to restore to Russia its complexity, torecognize its many voices, many faces: contradictory, sometimescontroversial, often painful, we have joined forces to offer those whowish to know Russia and not only “celebrate”, an “alternative” versionof the Year of France and Russia.

The creation of this platform is motivated by the desire not toreserve this time only to official speeches. All of us, everyday, livewith, work with and defend Russian citizens. We are all faced with themost brutal aspect of Russia’s reality.

Our goal is to illuminate the hidden side of Russia, not only toaddress crucial issues regarding its future and that of Europe, butalso to take the opportunity to speak with other parties.

In this ‘alternative’ framework, we will offer, throughout the year,another context in which to meet and pay tribute to politicalprisoners, activists for human rights, independent voices and writers.Our objective is to raise interest for that other Russia, to developreal solidarity between the French and the Russians.

Defenders of Human Rights in Russia need us. On December 16, 2009,representatives of Memorial, who received the Sakharov Prize by theEuropean Parliament urged the European Union to help them. A few weekslater, one of their most respectable spokespersons, LyudmilaAlekseyeva, was arrested!

We want this call to be heard. For those who can call for help arefewer and fewer. The year 2009 in itself was one of the darkest years.Many of those who fought for a Russia with more justice, more respectof the rights of the Russians lost their lives: Stanislav Markelov(attorney) and Anastasia Baburova (journalist of Novaya Gazeta, oneof the five journalists killed in 2009), Natalia Estemirova(representative of Memorial in Grozny), Zarema Sadulayeva (the NGOSpasem Pokolenie – Save our generation) and Alik Djibralov her husband,Sergei Magnitsky (Hermitage Fund lawyer, died in detention due to lackof appropriate care), Makcharip Aushev (Leader of the opposition inIngushetia) are no longer there to witness the severe deterioration ofhuman rights over the past six years in their country. There are alsocases of attempted murder of journalists, such as that of MikhailBeketov, now maimed for life.

Others have been, or continue to be victims of an authoritarianpower: Alexander Podrabinek, journalist forced into hiding afterdenouncing the triumph of creeping neo-Stalinism, Oleg Orlov (MemorialChair) who is being pursued in criminal court by Chechen PresidentRamzan Kadyrov, Yuri Samodurov (former director of the Sakharov Center)and Andrei Erofeïev (former curator of the Tretyakov Gallery), judgedfor organizing an exhibition of censored works of art; Alexei Sokolov,defender of Human Rights, held in custody for over eight months becauseof his fight against torture in places of detention. MikhailKhodorkovsky is still imprisoned and threatened by a second sentence oftwenty additional years. The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is far fromisolated: Russia now has dozens of political prisoners recognized assuch by Russian and Western NGOs.

Whether journalists, lawyers, members of NGOs advocating humanrights, business leaders and activists calling for liberalization ofthe civil society and the emergence of counter-powers, all are subjectto constant pressure and, often, threatened with death or imprisonment.

The Russian population as a whole is immersed in a pervasiveviolence. This violence is growing in some areas of the country,including the Caucasus, where atrocities are committed daily and cannotbe attributed solely to rebels operating in these republics. Thisviolence is intolerable and too often accompanied by a revoltingimpunity.

Not a single assassin of journalists or representatives of humanrights has been arrested nor punished in Russia in recent years!

Our resources, of course, cannot be compared to those of the”official” Year of France and Russia. But our commitment is as strongas our belief that there is no inevitability, that Russia is not doomedby authoritarianism, and that another Russia may rise, is alreadyemerging, and that it is necessary to support those who are thearchitects of this change. The “alternative” Year of France and Russiais for those who are interested in that Russia, as well.

–ACAT-France (Action des chretiens contra la torture): http://www.acatfrance.fr
–Amnesty International France : http://www.amnesty.fr/russie
–Maison d’Europe et d’Orient : http://www.sildav.org
–Reporters Sans Frontieres : http://www.rsf.org
With the support of Russian Non-governmental Organizations : SakharovCenter, Memorial, Foundation for the Support of Glasnost, and CitizenAssistance.