Category Archives: human rights

Latest comment on Russia: Obama, Medvedev, and human rights

Not to turn this site into full-time pimpage of my articles, but here’s the latest on Obama’s trip to Moscow and the human rights situation in Russia, from

Obama goes to Moscow

And here’s Medvedev’s video blog entry on Obama’s visit and Russian-American relations:


Filed under Barack Obama, human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

Human rights and Khodorkovsky

A group of American pundits which includes people as different as William Kristol and Leon Wieseltier is appealing to Barack Obama to make democracy and human rights a priority on his Moscow visit. reports (in Russian) that, according to Obama’s top Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, about half of the President’s time on his Moscow trip will be devoted to interaction with “unofficial” persons.  Specifically, nearly all of Day 2 of his three-day visit will be spent in meetings with activists, members of the business community, and youth groups (hopefully not Nashi!).   And reports that on the first day of the visit, July 6, Obama will attend a “Civic Summit” of non-governmental organizations including Memorial, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.  (Dmitry Medvedev is also expected to attend, though this is not officially confirmed.)   So far, this sounds like good news.

Meanwhile, a resolution urging the Russian government to dismiss the new charges against imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and co-defendant Platon Lebedev — a case that reeks of politics and outrageous injustice — has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.)  and Frank Wolf (R-Va), co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission,  and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe.  A similar bipartisan resolution was submitted in the Senate earlier.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Moscow this week as head of a visiting Congressional delegation, was asked about this on Ekho Moskvy radio (where he appeared with his Russian counterpart, Konstantin Kosachev).

Berman’s reply:

I am the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I have never heard of this resolution.  There is a tremendous difference between resolutions submitted by members of Congress and the laws Congress actually passes.  I would not focus on the isolated proposals of isolated members of Congress.  We should focus on what constitutes U.S. policy, what legislators enact, not the statements of some politicians.

Not only does Berman not support his colleagues’ human rights initiative; he goes out of his way to dismiss it as an insignificant and isolated political move.  Nice work, Congressman.

By the way, here is the full text of the resolution’s concluding part.

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Filed under human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

Russia updates: Obama and Medvedev; Lev Ponomarev

First of all, my apologies (again) for the lack of blogging.  Work has kept me busy, and partly the problem is that I want to make a meaty post when I finally make one.  In the future, I’ll try to post at least brief updates, for the Cathy-watchers who are still out there.

Lots and lots of Russia news.  Obama and Medvedev meet in London, and declare the beginning of yet another beautiful friendship.  (Medvedev called Obama his “new comrade”; I’m waiting for a “Comrade Obama” spin from the “Obama is the Stalin of our day” crowd, even though the word has long been out of use in Russia in its communist sense.)  Obama is poised to go to Russia in July.  There will be a new round in the disarmament tango, which no longer has its Cold War-era urgency because no one seriously believes that Russia and the United States could ever lob missiles at each other.  The idea of missile defense cooperation sounds interesting, but it’s unclear what, if anything, the talks about NATO expansion have accomplished.  (It is worth noting that Alexander Vershbow, Obama’s pick for Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security — a position that includes responsibility for U.S. policy toward NATO and coordination of U.S. security policies relatied to the nations and international organizations of Europe, the Middle East and Africa — is not only the former U.S. ambassador to Russia but, judging by his comments last October, a strong proponent of NATO’s eastward expansion.)  And I’m not sure why there are all these expectations that a cooperative Russia could help solve the Iranian nukes problem.  As far as I can tell, Russia’s friendly relationship with Iran in the past few years has been rooted mainly in a common interest in flipping off Uncle Sam as publicly as possible.  If a U.S-friendly Russia tried to pressure Iran to scuttle its nuclear program, I don’t see what leverage it would have.  Sure, they could stop providing the technology, but it’s not as if Iran had no alternatives, particularly with North Korea around.

My own (long) recent take on U.S.-Russian relations is in the April issue of Reason.  In a nutshell, I remain convinced that no meaningful partnership can exist between the U.S. and Russia as long as the Russian leadership (and much of the public) either embraces or exploits the idea that Russia’s greatness and special destiny lies in juxtaposing itself to the West, that for Russia to become fully integrated into the community of Western nations would somehow be a humiliation or a defeat.  Over the past five years, the Kremlin, via the mass media, has whipped up anti-Western and especially anti-American paranoia to a degree that few Americans can imagine.  (On March 26, in an interview on the Ekho Moskvy radio station [link leads to Russian text], a leading pro-government media personality, Maksim Shevchenko — who hosts a political talk show on Channel One as well as several radio shows — said that American forces in Afghanistan were “perfectly positioned to strike at our Urals, our Central Asia, our Southern Siberia.”)  Until the Russian government decisively divorces itself from this toxic nonsense (which is also peddled by loyalist youth groups like Nashi), its cooperation will not be reliable.

And, despite some signs of liberalization in Russia, the overall picture remains pretty bleak.  Here is the latest: the violent attack on human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, the subject of my column in today’s Boston Globe.  It was clearly a political attack, and while I don’t believe the government was directly involved, it has most certainly contributed to the atmosphere in which this kind of violence flourishes with impunity.  Much to Obama’s credit, he brought up the incident in his meeting with Medvedev.  (My earlier column on Ponomarev can be found here.)

There’s a common view among American “realists” that we shouldn’t push Russia too hard on democracy and human rights, and instead focus on areas of international cooperation.  But in Russia, contempt for human rights and confrontational attitudes toward the West go hand in hand.  That’s something that I hope the Obama administration will remember.  Fortunately, Obama’s top Russia hand at the National Security Council, Michael McFaul, seems well aware of this fact.


Filed under Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations

Justice, mercy, and goodwill to all men in Putinland

Svetlana Bakhmina, the jailed former Yukos lawyer who has been denied early release for which she was legally eligible, and who recently gave birth to her third child (conceived during a conjugal visit), did not get the Christmas present her supporters were hoping for. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ignored pleas for a presidential pardon for Bakhmina (from dozens of prominent public figures including actors, writers, artists, TV personalities, and even ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev — as well as, by now, over 91,000 ordinary men and women who have signed an online petition). The case was referred back to the Supreme Court of Mordovia, the region where Bakhmina is serving her sentence. On December 24, the court postponed its decision until January 21 because it has not had enough time to familiarize itself with her her case. (Seriously.) Fortunately, Bakhmina is at least awaiting the resolution of her case in a clinic in a Moscow suburb, rather than in the penal colony. The Yukos oil company is, of course, a longtime target of a political vendetta by the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Yuri Budanov, the Russian officer who strangled a teenage Chechen girl to death, will be getting out on parole after about 8 years in prison. The victim’s family plans to appeal this decision to the Strasbourg-based European Court on Human Rights. (Over a quarter of the court’s backlog now consists of Russian cases; of the 192 complaints heard in 2007, 140 were judged valid.)

And another interesting parallel. Another YUKOS defendant, Vasily Alexanian, has been repeatedly and illegally denied bail despite suffering from AIDS and cancer, despite objections from the European Court on Human Rights. When bail was finally set, it was at the prohibitive sum of 50 million rubles, or nearly $2 million. For now, Alexanian, who is reportedly nearly blind, remains in prison — despite the fact that, legally, the embezzlement charges against him should have been dismissed by now because the statute of limitations has expired.

Meanwhile, Eduard Ulman, a Russian officer who commanded a unit in Chechnya which opened fire on a civilian vehicle and then slaughtered all the survivors including a pregnant woman back in 2002, was released on bail along with his three codefendants. (Of course, for such cases to even come to trial in Russia is rare.) While the four men were convicted and given fairly long prison sentences in June 2007, Ulman and two others skipped bail and remain at large.

… What’s that we hear about the unfairness of demonizing Putvedev’s Russia?

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Filed under human rights, Russia