This is the fourth in a series of five blog entries from the “Symposium on Human Rights in Russia: The Life and Legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva,” which took place on November 15-16, 2019 on the campus of Indiana University—Bloomington. The blog entries were written by graduate students who come from a variety of disciplines at IU—anthropology, sociology, law, and REEI—and all of whom encounter or focus on Russia in their research. Each student wrote about the panel differently, sometimes reviewing the entire panel, sometimes addressing individual panelists’ presentations, other times reflecting on how Lyudmila’s legacy has informed the world in which they currently do research. Put all together, this series intends to not only convey what happened during the panels themselves, but also to give a sense of what these five students in particular took away from this symposium.
Roundtable: Pressing human rights issues in Russia today. The symposium culminated in a round table to discuss the most important current human rights concerns in Russia, and strategies for tackling them. Panelists: Tanya Lokshina, Paul Goble, Sergei Davidis, Dmitrii Makarov, Paul Goldberg, Cathy Fitzpatrick, Emma Gilligan (chair)
The author of this entry is an IU graduate student who prefers to remain anonymous.
Panelists: Tanya Lokshina, Sergei Davidis, Dmitri Makarov, William Pomeranz, Cathy Fitzpatrick, Emma Gilligan (chair)
On September 4, 2019 Konstantin Kotov made a statement in a Russian courtroom just before receiving a four-year prison sentence for unauthorized public demonstration and protest. He said (https://t.me/ovdinfo/3195) if the government will jail people for peaceful protests, then people will revolt and he doesn’t want this – referring to the fact that he doesn’t want violence. The courtroom was filled with people and even more were crowded around the courthouse on the streets outside. When the four-year verdict was read out, the initial reaction from the observers was shocked silence, but it quickly turned to indignation both inside and out on the streets. Despite the fact that everyone had just witnessed a man being sentenced to four years in prison for this very behavior, protests erupted outside the courthouse. They were again peaceful. Police forces were called to quell the commotion. Considering the circumstances, it is somewhat surprising that these protesters were not too deterred or intimidated by what they had just observed in the courtroom. Validating Kotov’s words, the authorities’ attempts to end the protest movement had become fodder for further resistance by the people. (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/09/05/russian-activist-sentenced-to-4-years-for-multiple-protests-a67170)
This is the picture artfully painted by Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch (https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/russia) on the final panel of the Symposium on Human Rights in Russia – Past, Present and Future. With a background in comparative literature, Lokshina is familiar with the components of a good story. Now with a substantial career in human rights work, beginning in 1998, she can employ her story-telling skills to paint a compelling picture of the human rights issues, figures, and causes with which she works.
While this trend of active protest, even in the face of direct threat by the state authorities, is a sign that progress is being made, there remain many challenges to an improved state of human rights across Russia. Panelist William Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute highlighted the limitation of international and regional institutions known for promoting human rights. An attempt by the Council of Europe (CoE) to penalize Russia following the annexation of Crimea, by temporarily suspending its membership as country in the regional organization, was ultimately unsuccessful when Russia stopped paying its fees in response. The CoE needed Russia’s fees to exist, so financial pressures caused it to reactivate Russian’s membership without the desired change in behavior. In conjunction with such trends as Russia’s (and other countries’) use of the veto power to protect its sovereignty, Pomeranz presented a case that Russia is changing international organizations rather than the other way around.
Dmitri Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group (one of three chairs tasked with taking over the responsibilities of the position formerly held solely by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, due to the enormity of the role she played), continued this line of discussion by posing the question of how to deal with countries who are members of organizations, yet do not conform with their values. Should we constrict so-called “club membership” to countries who follow the norms and values the organization purports to represent? How can nonconforming club members be identified and sanctioned? Makarov sees legal argumentation as the right strategy to tackle this question. By identifying the specific ways in which such countries are violating norms and laws, the organizations could present a clear and persuasive case for why and how that behavior must change.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick turned the conversation towards theoretical and moral debate. She emphasized the importance of sticking with the model that no violence means no violence when it comes to human rights movements countering state abuses and repression – no exceptions. She also discussed a challenge of the digital age – that the online platform containing much of the evidence of human rights abuses is threatened by the risk that such data could be lost or destroyed. Fitzpatrick contrasted this insecurity in cyberspace with an example from the Holocaust in which activists confined to ghettos recorded and hid evidence of human rights abuses in milk cans. The milk cans survived the war, outlived the activists themselves, and served as an important resource years later. How can human rights advocates today ensure that important documentation is secure in the age of internet?
Panelist Sergei Davidis has done much work focused on political prisoners. He noted that the Russian regime’s main goal is to stay in power. In order to do so, the state strategically prosecutes people for alleged protest activities. As an example of this strategy, Davidis cited Russia’s arrests in Ukraine of people who pose no articulable threat to the Russian state. For the Russian state, the arrests serve the purpose of supporting the propaganda that Ukraine is an aggressive state.
The roundtable discussion spanned these issues and gave the students, academics, and activists in the audience much to think about. Emma Gilligan, Associate Professor of International Studies at Indiana University chaired the round table titled “Pressing Human Rights Issues in Russia Today.” Gilligan herself has much experience working on these issues, and her thoughtful questions wove the panel of varied and vast expertise together.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva played a huge role in the human rights movement in Russia, and beyond its borders, and was involved in many challenging and important issues. The symposium commemorated and honored her inspiring legacy, while looking towards the continuation of this work. The two-day event hosted an impressive array of human rights experts, activists and advocates, and the final round table of the symposium was no exception.