Confronting the Kremlin

This opinion column appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Friday before President George Bush and Vladimir Putin “danced” together at the Sochi summit. The author, Oksana Chelysheva, is a journalist and director of the Nizhny Novgorod Foundation for the Promotion of Tolerance and a spokeswoman for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.

Confront the Kremlin By Oksana Chelysheva As President George W. Bush prepares to meet with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dimitry Medvedev in Sochi on Sunday, I hope he will remember the pledge he made in his second inaugural address in 2005. In that memorable speech, he promised that the United States would not ignore oppression and that it would stand with those who stand for liberty.

Thousands of Russians like myself have been speaking out and standing up for liberty and paying a heavy price. Some of us, like Anna Politkovskaya, have paid the ultimate price. The rest of us have suffered threats, defamation in the media, physical assault, fabricated prosecution and interference or obstruction of our work.We hope that Bush will not excuse our oppressors, who act in the name of Putin.There used to be a time when reforms announced in Russia promised to empower citizens and take Russia on a democratic path. Many people inside Russia and abroad wanted to believe it.What reality do we face now? Freedom of speech in Russia has been curtailed to the size of a poppy seed. The Kremlin has allowed the existence of a few independent media outlets as a cover for its systematic destruction of free journalism. Political prisoners are becoming a common reality: Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Yukos prisoners; scientists accused of espionage; Muslims, many of whom have been accused of supporting extremism only because they practice their religion; people in Russian cities who dare to take to the streets in hope that their voices will be heard. They are being beaten up by baton-wielding police. They are being taken into custody. They are being charged with absurd accusations of assaulting the police force. They are being subjected to enforced psychiatric treatment.The last two election campaigns in Russia, both parliamentary and presidential, were nothing but a mockery. The main purpose of our elections has been to secure the authoritarian regime that is being created in Russia.The situation in my home town of Nizhny Novgorod, the third biggest city in Russia, located some 300 miles from Moscow, is a perfect example of the real face of the Kremlin. It started with persecution of our small human right group, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society that was closed down in January 2007. It continued with breaking up peaceful protests during the Marches of Dissent in March. The authorities deployed 20,000 police and military troops against an expected 2,000 protesters.In August 2007, the police raided the offices of our new Russian organization, the Foundation to Promote Tolerance, and the Nizhny Novgorod edition of the newspaper, Novaya Gazeta and confiscated all the computers. In October 2007, they disrupted our attempt to hold a meeting in memory of Anna Politkovskaya. They even detained foreign guests who dared to come to the city.The repression continues. On March 20, the police carried out simultaneous searches in the homes of some 20 residents of Nizhny Novgorod and the region as well as in the office of the Nizhny Novgorod Foundation to Promote Tolerance. They have again confiscated all equipment, including cell phones and DVD players, claiming that they are combating extremism.Dozens of grave crimes against the peaceful citizens of our country have remained anonymous and unaccounted for.We are guilty of electing a president who, in the words of a group representing the victims of the 2004 Beslan tragedy, solves his problems by using tanks, flame-throwers and gas.But it is not our fault that the political elite of the world gives uncritical support to our president. I hope that Bush will not join them.A few weeks ago, I was in Prague meeting with Vaclav Havel and dissidents from around the world. Havel understands that those who stand up for liberty in Putin’s Russia are engaged in the same struggle as dissidents in Cuba, Burma, Iran, or North Korea, countries that Bush has found easy to criticize in public for their violations of human rights. Will he do less for us when he visits Russia?We are committed to human rights and non-violence. We stand for liberty, but we suffer oppression from our government. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities seem determined to make an example of us, presumably to intimidate others who share our views so that they think twice before speaking out.I am calling on you, President Bush, not to avert your eyes from the many Russian citizens in Grozny, Nasran, Beslan, Volgodonsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Murmansk, and Saint Petersburg who feel neglected and ignored in both their protests and suffering. Please stand with us as you meet with our oppressor.Oksana Chelysheva, a Russian journalist, is the director of the Nizhny Novgorod Foundation for the Promotion of Tolerance and a spokeswoman for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society.