This post is the first in a two-part series on this panel.
Part 1: The Fall of Human Rights
By Clare Angeroth Franks, REEI alumna
On Friday, February 5, 2021 four experts on human rights in Russia gathered to discuss the state of human rights in Russia today as part of the Russian Studies Workshop’s Critical Conversations in Russian Studies series. A recording of the event is also available. Panelists included Dmitry Dubrovsky, Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Governance at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow; Dmitry Makarov, Co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. The conversation was moderated by Associate Professor of International Studies at Indiana University Emma Gilligan.
Civil society groups are an important critical voice outside of the government. They advocate for citizens’ rights, including human rights. Their existence is inherently political. And yet, why have such groups in Russia been adamantly anti-political? And why are there so few groups today?
These questions are something of a hot topic as the Russian Studies Workshop has hosted a platform for these questions through the lens of various disciplines throughout the past few years. Environmental journalist Angelina Davydova has noted how grass-roots organizations have chosen to remain independent and unregistered as NGOs and have even avoided using the label of NGO in order to evade any sort of connection to politics. Political geographer Megan Todd has also noted this phenomenon among neighborhood groups protesting against the building of churches in Moscow’s green spaces.
The Russian public’s aversion to identifying their civil activism as political can also be applied to the Russian public’s aversion to using the term “human rights,” even when civil activism falls under the sphere of human rights. During “The State of Human Rights in Russia Today,” which is part of the Russian Studies Workshop’s Critical Conversations in Russian Studies series on February 5, 2021, panelists discussed the negative perception of human rights in Russia and abroad, among other topics.
Since the 1990s, the Russian public has had mixed feelings about human rights. Panelist Dmitry Dubrovsky of HSE Moscow referenced the findings of social scientists Sarah Mendelson and Ted Gerber. In a study that built on their work in the 1990’s, they found that “Russians’ commitment to civil liberties [was] weak, by a number of measures. Russians [were] more than twice as likely to express indifference, uncertainty, or hostility toward civil liberties than to strongly support them” (Mendelson and Gerber, 2001). As Dubrovsky noted, the Russian public during this time period strongly supported social and economic rights, such as the freedom from torture or the right to own property, but political rights, such as freedom of political expression, were not a concern.
Foreign assistance to bolster human rights groups created a sea of “generals without an army,” and while these groups became more professionalized, they were also disconnected from the grassroots and community organizations needed for sustainable activism. According to panelist Tatyana Margolin, the 2000s saw more maintainable growth, especially in the field of HIV/AIDS activism. The top-down approach from North American and European actors, however, echoed a colonial approach and left civil society organizations without the foundations needed to fight the takeover of an alternative version of civil society created by the Russian government.
The Russian government installed democratic institutions such as an ombudsman for human rights, but these initiatives were then transformed by a new and alternative definition of human rights created by the Russian government and Orthodox church. The idea of human rights took on the appearance of a foreign concept, alien from Russian values. Russia’s foreign agent laws, which became law in 2012, have undermined existing human rights organizations and chased out others.
As Dmitry Makarov said during the panel, “Human Rights have not won in Russia, nor elsewhere.” The press, both in Russia and abroad, has vilified human rights. Russian and other human rights organizations can no longer turn to the foreign governments and organizations which previously funded and promoted the growth of human rights. The illusion that democratic institutions will shield countries from autocratic tendencies and defend human rights has been dispelled not only in Russia, but also in Europe and North America.The human rights defense model shaped in the 90s has proven to be unsustainable.
Wary of connections to politics in Russia or abroad, civil society groups avoid political labels. Careers or activism in the field of human rights can be fruitless, if not dangerous. This top-down approach to civil society and human rights development has not been working. It is time for a new framework to emerge.
For further reading on this topic, please see the following:
- Excellent write-up about Dmitry Dubrovsky and his background: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/creative/epub/harriman/2017/spring/without_a_country.pdf
- Chapter on Civil Society in Russia from Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses in Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia by Saskia Brechenmacher (2017): https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/05/18/delegitimization-and-division-in-russia-pub-69958
- 2010 article by moderator Emma Gilligan on the role of the Russian ombudsman “The Human Rights Ombudsman in Russia: The Evolution of Horizontal Accountability”: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40784056
- Dmitry Makarov mentioned the failed Obama administration commission to bolster civil society groups in Russia. Here is a short article on the commission: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/world/europe/us-withdraws-from-project-with-russia-on-civil-society.html