Kremlin Struggles to Tame Its Rights Council

An exodus of respected civil society figures from the Kremlin’s human rights body left it in limbo while threatening to compromise its reputation.

Struggle continued this week over the council, an advisory body comprising well-known civil activists and scholars that is teetering on the brink of going defunct over a mass departure of members after Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration in May.

Only 22 of the original 40 members remain at the council. Most of the rest, including rights veteran Lyudmila Alexeyeva and business lobbyist Igor Yurgens, resigned of their own will, while former Constitutional Court judge Tatiana Morshchakova said the council was delegitimized by recent changes to rules governing selection of its members.

Most outgoers cited various disagreements with Putin’s administration as reason for the move. They also criticized the new methods of member selection, which were proposed by the Kremlin, saying they undermine the council’s independence.

Putin’s administration wants to make the council “soft and fuzzy,” an unnamed source in the administration said, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.

The newspaper also said the council’s head, rights activist Mikhail Fedotov, will be removed to curb the organization’s opposition stance.

Fedotov refused to speculate on his removal on Wednesday, but has promised earlier to step down if the council loses more than half of the members.

But meanwhile, anti-drug champion Yevgeny Roizman said on his blog on Wednesday that he was invited to run for a seat at the council in an online vote proposed by the Kremlin.

Roizman, a popular but controversial figure known for a heavy-handed approach to anti-drug campaigning and with a track record of conflicts with the Kremlin, currently faces two criminal cases against his foundation, City Without Drugs, over the death of an addict in their care. His supporters call the case politically motivated.

The presidential revamp plan for the council is scheduled to wrap up this fall. The council is set to convene next Monday to discuss new methods of member selection approved by the Kremlin.

Some recently resigned members, including Alexeyeva, said earlier that they could return in case a compromise is reached on the revamp’s methods.

The Kremlin human council was created in 1993, though it dates back in its current form to 2004, Putin’s first presidency.

The organization has no legal authority, but is entitled to advise to presidents and publicly voice opinion on rights matters, a power it has actively exercised throughout its existence.

The council advocated a retrial for jailed Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and commissioned a report into the death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in pretrial detention that said in 2011 that he was beaten to death by prison guards.

However, the council largely failed to influence Kremlin’s policies, prompting its previous head, Yelena Panfilova, to step down in frustration in 2010.

Putin and his administration appear to have not reached a decision on the council’s future fate yet, said Mikhail Vinogradov of St. Petersburg Politics Fund.

The Kremlin could keep the council in place as a token concession to critics accusing Putin’s regime of rights violations or neutralize it by stocking it with loyalists or miring it in red tape, Vinogradov said.

The council is unlikely to survive with the present lineup, said Pavel Salin of the Center for Political Assessment.

But Roizman’s possible inclusion on the council indicates a new strategy being considered by the Kremlin, he said.

“It looks like an attempt to put genuinely respected people on the council,” Salin said. “But the authorities will still keep them on a leash, if a very long one.”


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