The Kremlin is increasingly choosing to ignore the advice of the Presidential Human Rights Council on matters ranging from the Khodorkovsky case to the right of assembly. The Council is losing members, and losing face.
Rescue whatever can be saved: this is the thankless task confronting Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights. Almost half of the 40 members have now left the council. Most of them, including the grande dame of the Russian civil rights movement, Lyudmila Alexeyeva of Moscow's Helsinki Group, handed in their resignation after Vladimir Putin was re-elected president in May 2012.
The 62-year-old Fedotov, himself a respected human rights activist, has been trying to persuade Alexeyeva to change her mind, and it seems that he has succeeded. On Tuesday, Alexeyeva announced that she would, for now, leave open the question of her membership of the Presidential Council.
Fedotov has said that the election of new members will begin this month via the Internet. He hopes that the newly-constituted committee will start work in the autumn. This, however, is far from guaranteed.
Founder members criticize Putin
The wave of resignations was initiated by the controversial parliamentary elections in December 2011, which were won by the governing United Russia party amid accusations of massive election fraud. Since then many former members have criticized what they consider to be the increasing insignificance of the human rights council.
The committee was established in 1993 under the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Sergei Kovalyov, co-founder and the first head of the council, now argues that it should be dissolved. He does not believe that President Putin really takes it seriously. That, he says, was different under Yeltsin: he took the council's recommendations into consideration. "At that time, all the members of the commission for human rights were convinced that the president needed us," Kovalyov told DW. He says that Putin, on the other hand, merely uses the high-profile names as a fig-leaf in order to convey the impression, both in Russia and abroad, "that he is interested in upholding constitutional rights in Russia and needs expert opinions for this."
In fact, more and more often these days Putin ignores the council's advice. One high-profile example is the case of the oil billionaire and government critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has served nearly 10 years behind bars for economic crimes. The Human Rights Council examined the second lawsuit against Khodorkovsky and came to the conclusion that it was legally questionable. There was no reaction from the Kremlin. In this case, neither Putin's predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, nor Putin himself took the Council's view into consideration.
A current example that makes the Presidential Council for Human Rights look especially toothless is the tightening of the law on the right of assembly in Russia. Council leader Mikhail Fedotov protested against the new law, and called it a "mistake." This did not stop President Putin from signing it last month.
Awaiting new members
As a result, more and more people are starting to question the work of the human rights council. However, there are those who believe it should carry on. Alexei Golovan is one. He has been a member since 2004 and deals with questions regarding the rights of children. "We have done quite a lot, and there is still a lot to do," Golovan told DW. He himself sees no reason why he should resign.
Alexeyeva is waiting to see what happens
The human rights activist Valentin Gefter is trying to smooth over the debate. "We need the Council," he said in an interview with DW, adding that the worse the situation in Russia becomes, the more important its work is. Gefter himself, however, has resigned.
Experts believe that much depends on who the Council elects as new members. Lyudmila Alexeyeva is also waiting to see who they will be before deciding whether or not she will return. "If sensible, honest people join, then I'll stay," the 84-year-old told the Interfax news agency. If not, her resignation will be final: she has no intention of becoming a fig-leaf.
Author: Roman Goncharenko, Yegor Vinogradov / cc
Editor: Michael Lawton