Friday, June 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Internet a Last Line of Defense for Non-Russian Rights, Tatar Activist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 12 – A Tatar activist recently given an 18-month suspended sentence for articles protesting Moscow’s Russification policies, says that the Internet activists may have kept him out of jail and, given the government’s increasing pressure on other media, they are often a last line of defense for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in that country.
In an interview given to an independent Tatar journalist, Rafis Kashapov, a leader of the All-Tatar Social Center (VTOTs), explained that he has simply tried through his articles to attract the attention of society and the government to problems others have said less about (
Among the issues he has raised are “the policy of Russification of national minorities, the restriction of the rights of Muslims, the deportation of peoples, fascism, corruption, drug abuse, alcoholism, depravity, and other social problems” that he believes can only be addressed by open and honest discussion.
If Russia were a normal democratic state, he suggested, “the leadership of the country would react positively” and seek a resolution of them. But in Russia, “instead of that, [the powers that be] opened a criminal case against” him, charging Kashapov with promoting extremism.
While the authorities have been angered by Kashapov for a long time, the last straw appears to have been his essay “Say No to Christianization!” posted online earlier this year in which he protested the actions of officials who allowed an Orthodox priest to baptize Tatar babies without the permission of their parents.
Addressing that issue in particular, Kashapov noted that the authorities had not taken the obvious step of inviting Christian and Muslim leaders to meet with them in order to overcome the problems these baptisms created and that, once they opened a case against him, prosecutors never questioned either the priest who baptized the children or the official who permitted it.
Unfortunately, however, the Russian government had no interest in finding the truth or even in examining his case more or less honestly, the Tatar leader said. Not only were two FSB agents present at every hearing, an indication of the political sensitivities of the case, but the judge routinely ignored protests by his lawyers.
Kashapov suggested that “the Internet possibly played a large role” in keeping him out of jail. Not only did he and his supporters place information about the case online when they had no other way of getting past the government’s information blockade, but “the majority” of those who read these materials “understood on whose side the truth is.”
Moreover, many of those who learned about his case, Kashapov continued, supported him in court, signed appeals, and organized demonstrations and protests on his behalf. And he used this interview to “express gratitude” to these individuals and also to the administrators of the sites of the independent information agencies.”
Kashapov said that their efforts were especially important because “at the present time in Russia is being conducted an unwritten nationality policy based on force over non-Russian peoples which precludes their free development, subjects them to humiliation and Russification and takes away their spiritual and material wealth.”
In Tatarstan, this policy involves the ban on the use of the Latin script, the closure of Tatar schools, and the problem of opening replacement in the Tatar language. And as is the case with many other national minorities, it involves Moscow’s decision to reduce to almost nothing the “national-regional component” in the curriculum of the public schools.
Those legitimate concerns are exacerbated, he said, by the Russian government’s flagrant ignoring of extremist behavior by Russian nationalist groups, like Spartak football fans who displayed pro-Hitler banners at a Kazan match, and by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is trying to baptize or convert the historically Islamic Tatars.
Individuals and groups in Tatarstan who have tried to expose and oppose such things, Kashapov said, have suffered. Indeed, he said, they like those elsewhere who share their commitment to freedom and national rights increasingly find themselves in a situation that is “difficult and dangerous.”
But he added, neither he nor they have any choice but to proceed: “Every time, when we multiply a lie, speak an untruth, or commit wrong actions, then by so doing we recognize and support the authoritarian powers that be of Russia, we work for it, and that means we strengthen it.”
And he added, “playing at democracy in Putin’s Russia has come to an end. It turns out that now the most reliable means [for the government] to resolve a problem is to ‘bury’ an individual just as in Stalin’s time.” According to the calculations of Moscow’s leadership once again, “where there is no person, there is no problem.”
Kashapov said that he has been physically threatened for his activities and that his family and friends had told him that “it would be better if [he] went abroad,” lest the powers that be “put [him] away in jail or still worse kill [him].” But he told his interlocutor, he has no plans to do so, preferring instead to continue his work in and for Tatarstan.
His lawyers have filed an appeal which is scheduled to be heard by the republic supreme court, but Kashapov does not expect to win in any Russian venue, given the politics of his situation. Instead, he -- like so many other opponents of the regime -- is already looking to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for legal vindication.

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