Lev Ponomarev on Working within the System

This one is from the Boston Globe:

Freedom and fear: a Russian paradox By Cathy Young February 13, 2008 OPTIMISM is not an attitude one would expect these days from a human rights activist in Russia – not when, after rigged parliamentary elections in December, the country is in the middle of an even more farcical presidential “race”; not when media censorship is back and peaceful protesters are beaten and detained. And yet Lev Ponomarev, the executive director of the All-Russian Movement for Human Rights, sounded a surprisingly hopeful note in his talk last week at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies.

The 67-year-old former physicist hardly sees Putin’s Russia through rose-colored glasses. Ponomarev views the Kremlin’s current occupants as corrupt KGB-bred thugs, and believes the West should refuse to recognize the new parliament. He urges people to stop tiptoeing around the fact that post-Soviet Russia once again has political prisoners – most notably former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose tax fraud conviction in 2005 is generally regarded as retaliation for his political activities. Nor does he expect anything good from Putin’s handpicked heir, the reputedly more liberal Dmitry Medvedev.The goods news? “There is a tremendous ‘space of freedom’ in Russia today, and we need to expand it,” says Ponomarev. When an audience member suggests that Russia under Putin is in the grip of fear, Ponomarev dismisses this claim as greatly exaggerated. “Certain segments of society are scared,” he explains.”Mostly, it’s the people at the very top – those whom the regime deliberately set out to intimidate,” such as big businessmen or journalists on state-owned television channels. But “the lower you go down the social ladder, the less fear there is.” He points to print and especially online journalism, where raucous free speech thrives despite troubling instances of government harassment.Indeed, Ponomarev argues that since the parliamentary elections that signaled the death of democratic electoral politics, Russian society has paradoxically grown freer: “There is more contempt for authority, more rejection of the regime.” The reason is that the fakery of the elections and the succession has been too brazen: “They could have gotten away with this in a totalitarian country where people are afraid. But today, most people are not afraid.” The obvious in-fighting between Kremlin cliques helps as well.Similar paradoxes abound in the area of human rights. In many ways, the situation is grim – not only suppression of political liberties and persecution of opposition activists, but police abuse of ordinary citizens and horrific conditions in penal colonies. But the human rights movement has success stories, too. “I would not be doing this work if it did not yield results,” says Ponomarev. He cites a recent case in which his meeting with a prosecutor in Russia’s Far North resulted in the dismissal of fabricated criminal charges against a businessman/newspaper owner targeted by local officials – and in charges against the instigators of the phony case.Ponomarev stresses that “today, human rights activists work within the system” – in stark contrast to the Soviet period, when they were a handful of outcasts. Ponomarev, a notorious “radical” who spent three days in detention in 2006 for participating in an unauthorized rally, is also a member of the human rights advisory commissions of the Moscow chief prosecutor’s office and the Moscow regional police administration. While these commissions have no formal power and little influence, they still represent a foot in the door.Indeed, new developments in a case illustrate both the tremendous challenges and the opportunities for Russia’s human rights movement. Vasily Alexanian, Khodorkovsky’s former lawyer who is awaiting trial for alleged fraud, is suffering from AIDS and cancer yet has been held in detention without adequate medical care, in an apparent attempt to coerce his testimony against Khodorkovsky (who is facing new charges). For months, the Russian government ignored pleas to ensure his proper treatment, including injunctions from the European Court. Yet last week, after human rights activists stepped up the campaign to support Alexanian with rallies and open letters of protest, the case was put on hold and Alexanian transferred to a specialized clinic.Long-term, Ponomarev believes, the pro-democracy movement in Russia may be able to rebuild and acquire some real political clout in 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, the democratic façade the Kremlin is anxious to maintain gives human rights groups some leverage that can help check its authoritarian power.Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.