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Presidential council for human rights on brink of collapse

June 26, 2012, 15:25 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The presidential council for human rights is on the brink of collapse. Human rights activists have been leaving this body after the Kremlin came out with an idea of more democratic rules of forming the HRC. They have the fear that as a result the human rights council will fall under the control of the authorities. Experts believe that human rights activists as members of a closed corporation are as a matter of fact opposed to democratic procedures.

The row over the human rights council keeps growing. The presidential staff has been looking for a compromise with human rights activists, but at the same time it is reluctant to drop the new principle of forming the council through free nomination of candidates and voting in the Internet.

The deputy president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Igor Yurgens, and also human rights activists Valentin Gefter and Boris Pustyntsev, said on Monday that they were leaving the HRC. Last week the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva vacated her seat on the council in protest of the new rules of forming this body.

The 40-member presidential council for civil society and human rights is a consultative body under the head of state. Under the current provisions for the council’s statute its members are approved by the president at the request of the HRC’s chairperson.

The presidential staff has proposed a new method of forming the council, by which any non-governmental organization is free to nominate its own candidate, and the voting will be held in the Internet. The candidates who have collected the largest number of votes will be put on a list to be submitted to the president for consideration. From a list of 39 names the head of state will be expected to select thirteen who will join the new composition of the HRC.

Such a procedure of forming the HRC has drawn strong protests from human rights activists. Lyudmila Alexeyeva said that it smacked of mockery of common sense, because seats on the council might be taken (with the president’s consent) even by members of gardeners’ or bee breeders’ societies, who have no bearing on human rights activity whatsoever.

Igor Yurgens has said that he is reluctant to participate in what he described as “quasidemocratic selection.” Boris Pustyntsev dismissed as “demagogy” the speculations about a “more open method of forming the council.” In his opinion, the council will consist mostly of representatives of organizations working for the interests of the authorities.

The latest walkout of three HRC members took the number of vacant seats to 17. As the council’s head, Mikhail Fedotov has said, he will step down himself when less than 20 members are left. “For the time being the quorum remains. But several other members of the council have phoned me to say that they see eye to eye with Lyudmila Alexeyeva,” Fedotov said.

In the meantime, the exodus of HRC members began before the new rules of forming the council were introduced. Since the inauguration of President Vladimir Putin 13 members declared they were quitting.

On Monday there was another meeting between the council’s members and representatives of the presidential staff. As HRC member Daniil Dondurei said, the presidential staff was “very surprised” by the exodus of HRC members and pointed out that “nobody had the intention of shattering the council’s composition.” Now, he said, “the search will begin for some mechanism that would allow the Internet-community to propose something and enable Fedotov to somehow discuss at the last level the future of these personalities.”

Dondurei is skeptical about his colleague’s decision to leave, because “nobody has been appointed yet, nothing has happened.” Another member of the council – Kirill Kabanov, has not ruled out that after the adjustment of this mechanism some human rights activists may decide to return to the council.

A member of the Memorial society’s board, Sergei Krivenko, has said that the presidential staff’s members had asked everybody not to consider their actions as a “crackdown on the council.”

“Nothing has been approved yet. However, we were told quite clearly that within a week we must make the procedure of selecting new candidatures more transparent,” Krivenko said. “How to go about this business is anyone’s guess.”

The Kremlin feels greatly surprised and offended by the row over the HRC. As a source in the presidential staff has told the RBC Daily, the council’s members for several months were offered various options of reform: since the moment human rights activists started leaving the council in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin Fedotov has been offered two or three options. “Their gist was this: candidates should be nominated by non-governmental organizations from regions and a mechanism of partial rotation introduced.” But Fedotov dismissed all proposals.

“If our aim was to form a servile council, Fedotov would have never been appointed presidential adviser or the council’s head again. Public consultations are the president’s wish, and his opinion regarding the council’s composition will be decisive. After all this is a presidential council,” Kommersant’s source in the Kremlin said.

Political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky believes the presidential staff is interested in using the council as an instrument of establishing a dialogue with participants in mass protest rallies “by attracting into the council some non-radical critics of the authorities.”

The presidential staff argues that the previous council was entirely focused on the “Khodorkovsky case” and the current composition of the council is too politicized. “Human rights activists are worse than a closed caste of civil servants – they form some lists behind closed doors in a way that is obscure to all and then they get angry, when they are offered a democratic procedure of voting by entire society,” the source told the RBC Daily.

Political scientists agree that the human rights activists’ stance in this particular case cannot be called democratic. “Presidential council members believe that they have the exclusive license to human rights activity and the power to decide who is a human rights activist and who is not,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes political Pavel Danilin as saying. “This is the deepest delusion and one must say that before HRC members were co-opted exclusively on the basis of recommendations issued by other human rights activists. As a matter of fact HRC members recommended other members.” “These people are unprepared for any democracy, let alone direct, Internet democracy,” the political scientist said.

The director of the Institute of Applied Politics, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, is quoted by the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets as saying the procedure of forming the council on the basis of voting in the Internet would make the procedure more open: “I cannot understand those people who profess democracy but at the same time protest against it. One has the impression it is more important for them to take the position of a critic.”

The Russian community of human rights activists is an elite structure, and not a democratic one, said the president of the National Strategy Institute, Mikhail Remizov. “There is a clear friend-or-foe distinction, sometimes it has no links with the professional components of human rights activity. This community painstakingly guards its monopoly on the human rights agenda in the mass media, social and political spaces.” Consequently, says the political scientist, any expansion of the range of human rights activists and the list of people who can make decisions have drawn a very painful reaction from the council‘s members, for it is a threat to their very specific monopoly.

MOSCOW, June 26