Friday, February 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: De-politicization Yields Stability but Threatens Progress toward Civil Society, Russia’s Ombudsman Says

Paul Goble

Baku, February 15 – The “progressive de-politicization” of Russian society over the last several years has produced a kind of stability many Russians now welcome, but if this trend continues, Russians will sink into apathy and have chance to become a genuine civil society, according to Moscow’s human rights ombudsman.
In an interview published today on the occasion of the release of his annual report on the state of human rights in Russia, Vladimir Lukin noted that de-politicization had allowed for a slow growth in the level of legal consciousness of Russians but threatened to leave them politically apathetic (
While the number of complaints reaching his office fell slightly from 2006 to 2007, Lukin said, ever more Russians were prepared to turn to the courts for a defense of their rights. But most of the time, they are seeking to ensure that their personal rights are protected rather than their political one
Indeed, he said, the government’s “observance of political rights is as before something that does not agitate [very many] Russians.” As evidence of this, he pointed to the fact that only 3.3 percent of the complaints reaching his office involved political rights – and most of those concerned problems with holding meetings of various kinds.
Lukin told “Gazeta” that he was reluctant to say whether the situation in the area he monitors is getting better or worse. “On the one hand,” he said, “the absence of an extraordinary politicization of society” means that people can raise rights issues without fears that such steps will be politicized by others.
But “on the other hand,” Lukin continued, the de-politicization of society is leading to apathy among citizens and a loss of interest in politics and “the development and improvement of society.” Indeed, he suggested, the rise of such attitudes “is the main danger” Russia faces today.
If Russians conclude that they have no say in how they are governed, they may not challenge the regime and thus the country may look stable, Lukin noted. But if they have that view, they will not form a real foundation for any government but rather put the continuing stability of both the regime and the society very much at risk.
In other comments, Lukin noted that 50 percent of the complaints reaching his office concern violations of the rights of citizens by officials working in the militia, prosecutors’ offices, courts, or the penal system and about the failure of the authorities to ensure that their decisions are enforced.
One step that the ombudsman thought might help improve the situation in the legal system would be the reduction in the power of chief judges in local courts, possibly by making their positions elective. But Lukin indicated that he and others must carefully consider all the “pluses and minuses” of such a step.
And in his report, which he formally presented to President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, Lukin also offered statistics on the number of complaints relative to population in the country as a whole, Moscow city and Moscow oblast and the seven federal districts both for 2006 and 2007.
That table provides much food for thought. Three particularly intriguing data points are the following: First, the number of complaints per 100,000 residents fell sharply for the country as a whole over the last two years from 22.4 to 19.7, even though the number of the city of Moscow rose slightly from 32.9 to 33.0.
Second, the biggest declines in this measurement over the last two years took place in Moscow oblast and in the Southern Federal District which includes the North Caucasus. Whether that reflects improvements in either place or rising repression especially in the latter is unclear.
And third, the lowest numbers of complaints by far both in 2006 and in 2007 arose from people living in the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia and the Russian Far East, an indication of the increasingly important regional differences on a broad variety of measures within the Russian Federation itself.

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