Sunday, April 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Siberia’s Russians Work with Non-Russians to Create Regional Legal Defense Center

Paul Goble

Baku, April 7 – Russian activists in Krasnoyarsk and the Trans-Baikal have joined forces with colleagues in three non-Russian areas to form a Siberian Legal Defense Center, simultaneously filling a major gap in that large and largely Russian region and highlighting the role of non-Russians as models for ethnic Russian ones.
Outside of Moscow and other major cities, ethnic Russians historically have been significantly less active in organizing to defend their rights and communicating what they are doing in that regard than have non-Russian groups, a pattern that distorts the picture of what is taking place in that country.
On the one hand, it means that observers in both Moscow and the West typically know far more about what is going on in non-Russian regions than in predominantly Russian ones. And on the other, it means that many analysts conclude that conditions in the former are far worse on every measure than they are in the latter.
Now, Russians in Krasnoyarsk and Transbaikal krays are taking a page from activists in Khakassiya, Tyva, and the former Agin Buryat autonomy and creating a region-wide legal defense center to protect the rights of all people living in Siberia (
The organizers say they decided to do so to promote “cooperation with legal defense organizations elsewhere” in the country, to secure assistance for their activities “from neighboring subjects of the federation,” and to be in a position to draw comparisons “of the situation in various regions of Siberia from Novosibirsk to Chita.”
And, they continue, activists and lawyers in the new group intend to challenge arbitrary actions by the militia and the military, defense civil rights activists and journalists, and help those who the authorities for political reasons have falsely charged with crimes of one kind or another.
To that end, the new regional center will work closely with the Trans-Baikal Legal Defense Center, the Krasnoyarsk Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, and the inter-regional legal defense group AGORA, as well as with other legal defense and human rights groups elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
AGORA ( welcomed the creation of the Siberian group, saying that its “new partner” provides “a unique chance” to create a “professional legal defense community in Siberia, one that corresponds to contemporary Russian realities.”
As has so often happened, this new Russian group arose out of and is very much a copy of non-Russian organizations. It had its origins in Khakassia where Dmitry Lantsov, who heads the new Siberian group, has long worked to resist government efforts to restrict media freedom and other constitutional rights.
A graduate of the Siberian Federal University who then worked as a police investigator, Lantsov organized the Khakassia center by attracting others with extensive experience in law enforcement bodies and the penal system, an approach he is likely to employ in the new and larger Siberian center.
In addition to its own legal work, the Khakass center organized an inter-regional conference last fall to familiarize lawyers and law enforcement personnel in other parts of Siberia about its work in the country’s corrective labor colonies. And apparently at that meeting, Russian activists decided to create the new umbrella group.
Some 40 years ago, Tibor Szamuely observed in an article in London’s “Spectator” that the tragedy of ethnic Russian dissidents at that time was that they were ethnic Russians. By that, he meant that they could not draw on nationalism in the same way that non-Russian activists could.
Instead, he argued, the Russian dissidents would find themselves isolated, with the nationalists in their community viewing them with disdain, a sharp contrast with the situation in the non-Russian republics where human rights work and nationalism went hand in hand.
That is what makes the formation of the Siberian Legal Defense Center so important, but it remains very much an open question whether it will have any more success than its Russian predecessors did or whether it will, as was usually the case among Soviet dissidents, remain tied to and dependent on non-Russian groups.

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