6 February 2021
By Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya Gazeta columnist, member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, and recipient of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for human rights
Two different statements from the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights regarding the mass protests on the 23rd and 31st of January, one made on Friday morning by ‘members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights,’ and the second on Friday evening by ‘the whole Council’ show that there is no ‘whole’ Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, and there never was one, thank God.
Commenting on the situation for Interfax, the head of the Council Valery Fadeev explained that ‘the differences are fundamental. In Evdokimova’s version (more about her below – L.N), it is written that the powers that be and the people speak different languages. That is, the people took to the streets, and the government spoke to them via truncheons…far from everyone in the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights agrees with this.’ Fadeev also explained that the publication of the first statement was ‘wrong from an ethical point of them’ but that ‘no punishments will be meted out in relation to this.’
And there you go! The position of the minority was laid out by the head of the Council correctly for the most part, but the story of two different statements isn’t exactly as he told it. Knowing the situation from the inside, before his talk with Interfax I didn’t plan to air these disagreements in public, but now I have to explain how everything happened, as the reputation of the Council has been affected, a reputation which is still important to many of its members.
At the meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights on 3 February, which some participated in remotely, a decision was made about the impossibility of silence by the Council regarding January’s events. It was also highlighted that a delayed response could be perceived as an avoidance measure.
The first statement by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights was prepared by the head of the St Petersburg Human Rights Defence Council, Nataliya Evdokimova, who was helped by Genri Reznik (member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and lawyer, Note by MHG), Nikolai Svanidze, Igor Kalyapin and others. The text was ready on Thursday evening, and 23 signatures were collected for it (out of 49 members of the Council). Fadeev then took the initiative and promised to present a ‘more balanced’ text by the morning, asking everyone to wait.
It became clear that the first statement would not get a majority vote, and the task wasn’t set that way anyway, but the minority of signatories was quite large, and Evdokimova asked (as in established practice) to publish this text on her personal blog on the Council’ website. Council members don’t have direct access to it, but the Council’s secretariat should have done this at her request. Yet the statement did not appear anywhere on the site, and the majority of the signatories, due to the delay, and perhaps an element of sabotage, agreed with Svanidze’s proposal to post the statement on the site of the Moscow Helsinki Group (as the most respected human rights organisation) and Ekho Mosky, where Svanidze is a regular guest (he did not hide this initiative from anyone, and just confirmed it to me.)
Fadeev’s variant was ready basically by lunchtime on Friday. 27 members of the Council very quickly adopted it and an announcement appeared on the council’s site.
Meanwhile, the ‘statement in the version edited by Evdokimova’ had still not appeared on her blog on the same site.
Novaya gazeta readers can themselves check the difference between the texts. I would probably agree with Fadeev, that there are essentially no irreparable contradictions between them, although in term of proposals the text as edited by Evdokimova goes much further, considering, for example, the suppression of peaceful protests using brute force by the authorities as illegal, regardless of whether the protests were sanctioned or not. For the rest, as the popular saying by dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky goes, ‘my disagreements with the Soviet regime are aesthetic.’
It is not enough just to measure the quantitative ratio of votes in the Council, but we should consider the ‘quality’ of the signatures. Among the 23, in addition to those already mentioned, there are also Aleksandr Sokurov, Yevgeny Yasin, Anatoly Kovler (a former Russian Federation judge at the European Court of Human Rights), Tatyana Merzlyakova (ombudsman for human rights in the Sverdslovsk region), Aleksandr Asmolov (a member of the Russian Academy of Education) and others. Noone from the minority withdrew their signature, although some signed both statements. However, the list of those who signed on behalf of the majority is not provided on the Council’s website.
The Human Rights Council is divided, and this is not only not bad, it’s a good thing.
The representation here of people with different worldviews still favourably distinguishes the Council from most other institutions, like the Public Chamber or even the Federal Assembly, not to mention the judicial system.
Two questions arise: 1) to what extent does this representation reflect the real ratio of the same opinions in public opinion in the country at large? And 2) how much should it reflect it?
In fact, the same questionn was asked by the chair of the Human Rights Council in an interview with Interfax: ‘Did the people go out (on to the streets – L. N.), and specifically what section of the people?’
Before the latest rotation of the Council’s membership last November (not to mention the penultimate one the year before), the statement in the version put forward by Evdokimova would probably have collected more than half of the votes. It is unlikely that this alignment would correspond today to public opinion as a whole – in this sense, Fadeev is right. But public opinion is changing, and, judging by the polls, not in the direction in which the Human Rights Council is moving. This is dangerous and a Council of that kind ceases to be necessary or interesting – including for the president, under whom it was established.