11 December 2020
By Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya gazeta columnist, member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for the Protection of Human Rights
It was the first I had seen him so close – albeit on a screen. During in-person meetings between the president and the Human Rights Council I had sat far away, almost as if I was on the other side of history. This time, the feeling of direct contact – even though time ran out before it was my turn to ask a question – intensified the desire to understand how this person thinks. What does the present and future (and even the past) of the country depend on?
First of all, it is important to know what information actually reaches him, and what is blocked either by him or his entourage. I have the opportunity to compare the preliminary discussion of the topics and the list of speakers at the meeting with Sergei Kiriyenko – it took place two days before the meeting with the president – with the list that lay on the table in front of Putin.
There were no changes to this: those who were at the meeting with Kiriyenko and presented their theses were given the floor (although most of those who did not come to the first meeting did not). It was unclear why the order of items on the list changed, but Putin allowed everyone to speak. Neither Valery Fadeev, following his short speech, nor the nearby Tatyana Moskalkova and Sergei Kiriyenko interfered in this process.
The first on the list after Fadeev was Evgeny Myslovsky and Eva Merkacheva. Both of whom discussed very serious and acute topics: the first spoke about the monstrous level of the investigation and the lack of judicial control over it, the second spoke about the amnesty and blackmailing of prisoners in jail with bans on calls and correspondence. Soon it was Natalya Evdokimova’s turn, with a pointed criticism of the repressive bills submitted to the State Duma. After three hours of conversation, Putin began to shorten the list, but still “could not help but give the floor” to Nikolai Svanidze, who quickly mentioned the New Greatness case as well as the situation concerning Aleksandr Shestun. He also raised the topic of systematic torture, and also asked why Russia has not yet opened a case on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
This list shows that Kiriyenko, who had conducted as it were a rehearsal with us, knowing full well his boss’s wishes, deliberately let members of the Council tell him, generally speaking, everything we wanted to say, and in doing so he was sure that the boundaries set by the rules of the game would not be disturbed. How Putin himself reacted to this was another matter – somewhat simplifying, there were two outcomes for this: either immediate rejection, or “let’s see”.
The “let’s see” outcome means that the proposal has the potential to trigger an “assignment”, although it then descends into the world of civil service bureaucracy, where the idea is either transformed beyond recognition or grinds to a halt.
Categorical rejection is triggered by use of the word “abroad” and especially by any money coming from there — this is a radical evil for the president, and almost all critical topics boiled down to this concept in his eyes. Commenting on Evdokimova’s speech, he complained (I’m paraphrasing, not citing him directly) that while our people are good and sincere, “those who give them money may have completely different plans.”
Responding to Greenpeace’s Sergei Tsyplenkov, who had spoken about the state of the environment and in particular about the poisoning of Lake Baikal, Putin noted that it is, of course, necessary to protect nature, but those who give money from abroad for this purpose “may also pursue the goal of weakening our economic strength”.
Putin perceives any threat to the regime as a whole and to his personal power as coming from abroad: after all, surely it’s impossible that anyone could seriously, and by themselves, oppose these things inside such a ‘united Russia’?
The personal history behind this point of view is not the theme of this article, but the conclusions that are drawn as a result sometimes turn out strangely. For example, Kirill Vyshinsky, having described how foreign internet platforms block patriotic content in Russian-speaking segments of the Internet, proposed to force them to establish legal entities within our jurisdiction. The idea is a naïve one, since there are no legal instruments that would allow this to be done effectively without destroying the segments themselves, but the president’s answer was even more strange: he said it is necessary to deprive “them” of a technological advantage.
Obviously, the president does not see any connection between this hope (“to catch up with and overtake America” even during his tenure in power) and the hunt for spy scientists, the idea of licensing enlightenment and the intimidation of “foreign agents”.
He is not against the idea of human rights per se, just like he is not against the proposal to erect a monument to Andrei Sakharov, but, judging by his responses, the president is not all that familiar with the human rights agenda: he could not immediately recall who Irina Slavina is, and, when asked about Ivan Safronov’s case, he said that he had already been “convicted”. It would seem that he was mixing up the New Greatness and Network cases (the latter organisation is banned in the Russian Federation), and he was also mistaken in saying that he “thinks” the law requires an admission of guilt as a necessary basis for a pardon (by the president himself, incidentally).
I think that the issue simply does not occupy Putin’s thoughts as much as the fight against foreign interference in Russia’s domestic policies does. We are seeing him in a “need to think” mode right now with human rights defenders from the Human Rights Council, but he has other modes for communicating in other circles that we can only guess at. He has many faces, and this is more complicated than your average hypocrisy: these different and even contradictory faces may also be sincere in their own way.
He is told only as much as he wants or does not want to know about something.
At any rate, Vladimir Putin does not regard cruelty as an end in itself, and it does not give him pleasure. He simply prefers to trust his comrades – his security forces – more than the human rights defenders he does not always understand, and, as a result, the former receive carte blanche. The president is simply confident that courts will stick to the security forces’ narrative, although they hardly command his respect.
I think that Putin avoids interfering in repressive policies, the flip side of which is the defence of human rights, because it does not interest him, he finds it cruel and messy, although there is nowhere to go from here when it comes to “foreign interference”. It is possible that to begin with, in the early days of his rule, he dealt with law enforcement policy himself, but now he can allow himself to wash his hands of it, as it were. Does he not want to interfere in the work of law enforcement agencies because he is no longer able (possibly because it would require him to make radical and therefore risky reforms and staff changes)? I think that such a question is impossible to answer unequivocally.
Some kind of verb is needed here that our language doesn’t have: “can’t/doesn’t want to” or “doesn’t want to/can’t”. All we can do is simply accept it as fact and carry on with our work as much as we are able.