Ilya Shablinsky: Putin and his entourage know that there is a human rights doctrine. But they have vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

9 December 2021

Pictured: Member of the MHG Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

This week sees two dates which should remind people about the value of each person’s life: Human Rights Day on 10 December and Russia’s Constitution Day on 12 December.

Human Rights Day was established in 1948 when the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And for several years now, on 10 December, the Russian president traditionally meets with his Presidential Council for Human Rights. Human rights activists use this meeting as an opportunity to at least make a statement, at the highest level, about specific problems in Russia and talk about the most resonant fabricated criminal cases.

We had a videocall with Moscow Helsinki Group member and academic jurist Ilya Shablinsky.

How has Russia’s relationship with the idea of the supremacy of human rights changed?

Ilya Shablinsky: In the USSR, they constructed a certain ideological scheme, according to which the most important rights were to work and to the provision of economic conditions by the state. Propaganda stated the importance of human rights, but primarily socio-economic rights, whereas political rights were relegated to the background: they said that they exist but that all normal people support the party’s policy.

After the collapse of the USSR, we began to talk about political rights, because a real political struggle had begun. These rights – electoral rights, the right to criticise the authorities, the right to freedom of speech – began to gain popularity.

Maryana Torocheshnikova: Man, his rights and freedoms are the highest value. Recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights is the duty of the state. It’s the second article of the Russian Constitution. The country’s Basic Law turns 28 this week. A year ago, however, the Constitution was amended, but the second article was not touched, so the authorities are still required to observe it.

But what is actually happening, and do people feel protected by the law from arbitrariness? We asked sociologist and the Levada Centre’s research director, Lev Gudkov (the Ministry of Justice has named the Centre a ‘foreign agent’).

Lev Gudkov: About a third of the population says that their rights have been violated in one way or another. But it is difficult to find protection by going to government agencies, the police or to court: people see this as rather ineffective. Appealing to human rights organisations appears to be more effective. In most cases, people seek restoration of their rights or some kind of protection. But human rights organisations’ popularity is very low – about 8-9% of the population will turn to them.

Most of all, people feel vulnerable to arbitrariness, administrative pressure, and police misconduct. To a greater extent, they talk about the need to protect social rights – the right to life, freedom, personal integrity, and medical care. But in the last five years, after imperial mobilisation related to the Crimea began to dissipate, people’s feelings around insecurity, injustice and greater state violence has increased sharply.

The need for freedom of speech has increased greatly: if in 2016-17, 34% of people spoke of its importance, the figure is now 61%. People feel an acute pressure from the authorities, an infringement of these rights, and anxiety, a sense of injustice. The index of fear of state violence, of a return to mass repression, has doubled over the last two years.

Maryana Torocheshnikova: You can focus on sociological research, or you can rewind to December 2011, when mass protests in Russia started after the Duma elections, and see where we arrived at 10 years later.

Illya Georgievich, both the Universal Declaration and the Russian Constitution place human rights at the forefront, arguing that the life of any person is higher and more important than the interests of the state. Is this idea not deliberately denigrated by modern Russian propaganda? Perhaps this is precisely why people are so afraid of the likelihood of new reprisals?

Ilya Shablinsky: On the one hand, Putin and his entourage know that there is a human rights doctrine, they live in a world where in the majority of prosperous democratic states these rights are defended by the courts, and the courts are independent. But they have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. And it is on this basis that they launch sporadic attacks against those human rights defenders who seem especially dangerous to them, like say, Lev Ponomarev. They periodically take steps to discredit the human rights movement which, according to the old propaganda format, is associated with outside interference.

Maryana Torocheshnikova: But do people understand that the state should not use them, that they are the main ones in this state and the state is secondary?

Ilya Shablinsky: No, that is not the question. Part of the population just lives, not thinking a great deal about the state or political attitudes. These are people on very low incomes. But when it comes to politics, they tend to trust the state, especially if it is talking about external enemies. They are prepared to think about these rights if a specific situation arises. In the last four years, there has been a huge swathe of people (roughly the same that is inclined to support the authorities in everything) for whom wages have been steadily declining while prices rise. 

Maryana Torocheshnikova: Why on earth don’t people link the current disastrous economic situation with the fact that for many years they have not had any real opportunity to express their political will, to realise their political rights and freedoms? After all, it makes sense to think about this. 

In the Soviet Union, during the “silent rallies”, it was difficult to even imagine that very soon, human rights organisations, both Russian and foreign, would legally operate in Russia without fear of persecution for defending human rights. That’s how it was for a while. But after the 2012 amendments to the law “On Non-Profit Organisations”, the concept of “foreign agent” started to appear in Russia. The authorities said that such a status would not interfere with the work of NGOs, but everything turned out quite differently.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson and Nathalie Corbett

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