Selling Human Rights in Russia

Selling Human Rights in Russia

Russian human rights activist Gregory Shvedov examines how Vladimir Putin’s tactics toward Chechnya align with George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.”


Once the domain of propagandists showcasing the Soviet superlative, public relations in modern Russia is a rapidly growing profession. Unless, like Gregory Shvedov, you’re in the business of packaging and promoting human rights.

Shvedov is the news director for the nearly seventy bureaus affiliated with Memorial, a nongovernmental organization that catalogues and publicly commemorates the millions of victims of Soviet-era state-sponsored repression. Founded in 1988, it strives to show Russians that, in ignoring the tragic Soviet past, they are helping Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power. People in “a society without memory,” as Memorial’s website warns, are nothing more “than nuts and bolts in the state machine.” To encourage awareness, Shvedov and his partners start by conducting regional surveys on a specific issue. After gauging local public opinion, he helms a full-scale PR campaign, tailored to channel dissent into concrete political action.

Protesting the war in the Chechen Republic remains one of Memorial’s greatest challenges. Separatists are mostly Muslim and some factions have resorted to terrorism, while Russia has garnered the “inglorious distinction of being a world leader” in state-sponsored kidnappings, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Since September 11, Putin has largely silenced international criticism by allying himself with President Bush’s “global war on terror.” He has also strong-armed civil liberties at home, cracking down hardest on NGOs like Memorial and other dissidents. Meanwhile, as Putin instigates nationalism, Russia’s litany of human rights violations continues to grow.

During a recent phone conversation from his office in Moscow, Shvedov offered his perspective on democracy and accountability in Putin and Bush’s “war on terror.”

How do you perceive Putin’s participation in what George W. Bush calls the “global war on terror”?

I personally think the whole concept of international terrorism is not working. There is terrorism, for sure, but I don’t believe in the so-called global terrorism network…. Terrorism is not caused by an external factor but by some internal reason. It exists inside of a state, where there are internal political problems, like the Kurds abused in Turkey, and the separatists’ battle for an independent Kurdistan, or in Egypt, where the existence of political prisoners is used to justify attacks on tourist hotels. It also is caused by conflicts that have already been legally resolved, such as in Northern Ireland, or in Spain, regarding the question of Basque autonomy…. By ignoring local threats in Iraq, the US Administration has produced a wave of terror, just as hundreds of waves, even a storm, was fueled by the Putin Administration in Chechnya. The international fight against terror causes newer and bigger waves of it, but it does not reduce the effectiveness of local rebels. Clearly, the global community needs another strategy for fighting terror.

What’s your opinion about the American government’s role in the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?

There are a lot of victims of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, which is alarming. But this situation is different from prisoner abuses in Russia.

How does it compare to Putin’s involvement in Chechnya?

Guantánamo, for me, was a very important example of a crime that was made by the state. What’s different is that, in Russia, such a crime causes a climate of impunity. This is the Russian national illness…. There is far more accountability [in the United States] than in Russia. This doesn’t mean that the US is a paradise. There are crimes and people are responsible for them, but I have the sense that most of those who commit them will go to prison. We completely lack this accountability in Russia. No one from the federal or regional administrations has been indicted for the incompetent security system at Beslan, for example. No one, Putin included, has been held responsible, and there’s no independent media coverage to discuss this situation.

Do you see any parallels between Bush’s perception of presidential power and Putin’s?

War is a tactic of politicians who want to be in power. Maybe Bush is not spending too much time developing democracy, but there are hundreds of Guantánamos in Russia.

What could the Bush Administration do to pressure the Russian government to improve its human rights record?

In fact, on some issues, Congress has been quite supportive. About 60 percent of human rights projects in Russia are supported by American federal and private money. But the Bush Administration is too delicate in its criticism of Putin. Right now there is a new law up for vote in the Russian Parliament. [The bill sailed through both houses of Parliament, and Putin approved it January 10.] If it’s passed, it could create an extraordinary system of control over Russian NGOs. There is strong opposition in the US to this law, which is very good, but Americans offer no criticism of ongoing human rights abuses in the Northern Caucuses, about the kidnapping of NGO leaders or about the repression of Muslims. We need support not only in fighting against this dangerous new law but also on a much broader range of issues.

As for Bush’s relationship with Putin, I would encourage much less friendship with the current Russian administration, which is not based on the same principles that are laid down in the US Constitution. The rule of law exists in the US, but not in Russia. As the president of a democracy you cannot be close friends with the president of a country who is responsible for thousands of deaths. There can be cooperation, but not friendship.

Americans are questioning our involvement in Iraq, yet many won’t speak out because they’re afraid of being seen as unpatriotic. Memorial’s PR campaign against the war in Chechnya was extremely effective in motivating Russians to protest it. What contributed to its success?

We spent more than three years conducting national and regional surveys to find out what the Russian public thought about the war in Chechnya…. Our campaigns were designed according to these results. We communicated a concrete message: Russian citizens have a personal responsibility to speak out against the war in Chechnya. We need to understand what people think and work effectively with public awareness. Only this can help attract the public to our values.

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