Vienna, February 9 – Balancing the requirements of the counter-terrorist struggle and the rights of citizens has not been easy for any country, but in Russia under Vladimir Putin, most people have been prepared to accept restrictions on their rights if that is the price of guaranteeing security.
And while human rights activists have regularly complained about the ways in which the security forces have engaged in actions that violate the Russian Constitution and Russian law, few mainstream political figures have taken up that cause. But now, perhaps because of official over-reaching, that may be changing.
As it often does with emerging issues, the Regions.ru news agency asked eight members of the Duma and the Federation Council and eight religious leaders about their views concerning the balance between counter-terrorism and the rights of Russian citizens. Compared with similar surveys in the past, their views are somewhat surprising (www.regions.ru/news/2337977/).
The occasion for this survey was a report, subsequently confirmed by interior ministry officials, that militiamen in Moscow as “an experiment” had been told to collect detailed dossiers on the lives and activities of ordinary citizens in their districts as a “prophylactic” measure against the possibility that they might engage in terrorist activities.
The eight parliamentarians were unanimous in their assessment that the proposed collection of data on ordinary Muscovites in the name of the counter-terrorist strategy is wrong and against the law, a view that the eight religious leaders echoed with varying degrees of intensity.
Viktor Orlov, a senator from Kamchatka, said he was “seriously concerned” by the Moscow interior ministry plan even as an experiment, arguing that such a step crossed the line governing what militiamen should do. And he promised that he and other deputies would “carefully follow” what is going on in the interior ministry as a result.
“Spying on citizens does not fall within the competence” of local militiamen, he suggested, adding that he “doubts that this [program] is legal even within the framework of the program on the struggle with terrorism,” an indication that in his mind at least Moscow has gone too far and needs to be reined in.
Senator Vladimir Gusev from Saratov who serves on the Federation Council’s economic policy committee, said that such an experiment was “very dangerous … [because] the decision to collect about a citizen a full packet of information including even his sexual orientation will allow people to speak about the beginning of total watching of the population.”
While one can understand the desire of the interior ministry to do everything to counter terrorism, Gusev said, “this does not mean that it is necessary to launch an experiment that involves looking into the personal lives of people.” That some officials think otherwise is thus very disturbing.
And along with the others, Aleksandr Pochinok, a senator from Krasnodar kray, took a similar position, explicitly stating that “even on behalf of the struggle with terrorism one must not sacrifice freedom.” And he pointed out that the US reaction to September 11 had been based on that principle, something Russia would do well to follow as well.
Among the religious leaders, the reaction to the latest MVD “experiment” was similar with some religious leaders denouncing it as “anti-constitutional” and others suggesting that Russians should appeal against it first in the Constitutional Court and then, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (www.regions.ru/news/2338137/).
Some of them pleaded a lack of expertise to judge what was going on, but others were very clear. Among the latter was Elena Leontyeva, the head of the Moscow Buddhist Center, who said that society must precisely define what it will tolerate in the struggle with crimes of all kinds.
“It is necessary to draw legal limits,” she said. “Soviety must decide to what limit it will go an dhow often each of us is prepared to share with the powers personal information and whether this should become a continuing or periodic practice.” Unfortunately, she continued, “it is difficult to imagine that we will be able to do without this in the immediate future.”