Cablegate: Russian Human Rights Observers See Problems, Some Possible

DE RUEHMO #4807/01 2750325
R 020325Z OCT 07




E.O. 12958: N/A

SUBJECT: Russian Human Rights Observers See Problems, Some Possible

MOSCOW 00004807 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) During discussions with Embassy officers and EUR/RUS Human
Rights Officer Mary Glantz from September 17-18, local observers of
corruption issues, religious freedom, and media rights saw political
and press freedoms shrinking within the country, but were guardedly
optimistic about guarded optimism for change in some spheres.
Yelena Panfilova of Transparency International described a host of
problems related to corruption, but also voiced some hope for
changes under the new Premier Zubkov. In contrast, Lyudmila
Alekseyevna took a much darker view of events and expected a
downward trajectory. On religious freedom, Geraldine Fagan of
"Forum 18" reported that religious groups face considerable
bureaucratic hurdles, but noted that the administration largely
imposes those difficulties equally on all groups. Andrey Richter of
the Media Law and Policy Institute cited the need for legal reform
to help guarantee press freedom, questioned whether the new Duma
would be any more disposed towards creating such a system of laws,
but pointed to positive steps by the Supreme Court to protect
editorial opinion.

Two Views on Corruption Trends

2. (SBU) Embassy interlocutors on corruption in Russia differed
sharply in their assessments of recent developments. Yelena
Panfilova of Transparency International (TI) was realistic about the
problems that corruption posed to Russian society, but expressed
hope that the Duma would soon pass anti-corruption laws and start a
reversal of Russia's current poor record. Panfilova acknowledged
that corruption in the country was endemic and pervasive, from the
traffic police that collect 'on-the-spot' fines to university
professors who provide a passing grade for a fee. She further
claimed that the inflows of money from global high oil and gas
prices have intensified corruption in the country. (The
international parent organization of TI Russia issued its annual
global corruption index on September 26 and "downgraded" Russia from
121st to 142nd place -- ranking Russia below Cameroon and alongside

3. (SBU) Panfilova saw the fight against corruption as Putin's last
unfinished business and posited that with only a few months left in
office, he would need to address this problem seriously. Otherwise,
she believed Putin's place in history would always be marked with an
asterisk, noting that he failed to address this basic problem in
Russian society. Panfilova drew some encouragement from the
appointment of Zubkov as Prime Minister and the Russian Duma's
consideration of a new anti-corruption bill. She saw Zubkov's
experience fighting financial crime as a plus; not only did he know
where the bodies were buried, he also know how to dig them up.
According to Panfilova, Zubkov would also need to create a "brand"
for himself quickly to make his premiership successful. If he could
push through anti-corruption efforts, Russians would see him as
heroic, assuring his future political (or non-political) career.

4. (SBU) Panfilova did not see the entrenched bureaucracy as a
problem in this battle. In a sense, she argued, the vertical,
top-down authority structure Putin has created would be an advantage
-- those at the top would hardly be in a position to fight any
anti-corruption plan. Indeed, they would see active participation
as a pre-requisite for continued participation in the government.
She saw Putin's powers of summary dismissal as a strong tool that
would intimidate any truculent bureaucrat from cabinet ministers to
oblast governors and even to clerks issuing driver's licenses.

5. (SBU) The main problem she saw with Russian anti-corruption
legislation concerned the lack of basic legal definitions. She
said that Russian law has not defined illegal enrichment, conflicts
of interest, or other forms of corruption. However, she pointed out
that in early October the Russian Duma would begin considering a
draft law that would bring Russia into compliance with the United
Nations Convention against Corruption by establishing what the
courts will allow and setting punishments for violations. Once
anti-corruption laws are enacted -- an eventuality that she
considered inevitable -- the pent-up frustrations of Russians would
finally have a release. She believed that as ordinary Russians
began to understand there were mechanisms to control corruption,
they would begin to avail themselves of the courts. As she imagined
the process developing, slowly but surely society would bring the
bureaucrats to task on this issue.

6. (SBU) Pamfilov's optimism contrasted sharply with the view of
Lyudmila Alekseyevna of Moscow Helsinki group, who dissident in the

MOSCOW 00004807 002.2 OF 003

Soviet Union and viewed the current situation in Russia in stark
terms. She saw similarities between the current administration and
the previous Soviet authorities, characterizing the courts as under
the control of the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy as clearly under
the control of the president. The elected Duma, she contended, does
not and cannot express its own, independent will. She did not see
much hope for change in the upcoming December Duma elections and the
March presidential elections.

7. (SBU) Alekseyevna described the political situation in almost
feudal terms, seeing the Kremlin keeping power close and
distributing the benefits and proceeds to friends or relatives. She
said that the current situation is different from that under the
USSR in that private property did not exist. With current property
laws, she said that those in power have the capability of gathering
much more wealth than had been possible under the Soviet system.
She said that those in the Kremlin basically run Russia as a private
fiefdom for their own personal enrichment.

Freedom of Religion

8. (SBU) Geraldine Fagan of "Forum 18," a news agency that monitors
religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, cautiously described
the situation in the country as good, with no government policy of
religious discrimination or preference. She pointed out that while
there are tendencies within society to advantage Russian Orthodoxy
over other religions, she acknowledged that most efforts to
institutionalize this preference were at the local level. At the
Federal level, she noted that Putin had resisted attempts to put
Russian Orthodox culture and religion in the national school
curriculum. On September 13, Putin publicly said that any adoption
of such a national policy on religion would require a constitutional
amendment -- a step he considered ill-advised.

9. (SBU) Despite the fact that some religious organizations have
experienced problems (such as Jehova's Witnesses and the Salvation
Army), Fagan pointed out that most organizations could operate
unhindered in the country. Fagan indicated that all religious
organizations to one extent or another feel the burden of the
bureaucracy, but she had seen few reports of administrative excesses
that can be traced solely to an organization's religious status.
She said that even under the new NGO law, most organizations have
been able to register. On the other hand, Fagan noted that
burdensome registration and auditing demands seem to hit harder on
smaller or less well organized religious organizations that do not
have the resources and sophistication to manage the paperwork and
other requirements. She would not rule out that in the future, the
government could use bureaucratic measures to target particular
religious organizations.

Media Law and Policy

10. (SBU) Andrey Richter of the Media Law and Policy Institute
viewed the legislature as the biggest impediment to changing the
situation for media freedom. He described the Duma as unable or
unwilling to pass needed legislation for an independent press to
function. Regarding print media, he noted that since 1991, some
legislation has assured the editorial independence of newspapers and
journals; however, this freedom has been eaten away as prosecutors
(with the complicity of the courts) have used anti-terrorism and
anti-extremism laws to cower the press. Since the 2006 amendments
to the extremism law, local prosecutors have found it easy to pursue
"extremism" cases against media outlets. Most such outlets quickly
came to understand that the authorities could close their presses if
they continue publishing controversial material. Richter noted that
currently few media outlets choose to publish articles critical of
the current administration, and those that do serve mainly the
larger cities, often only Moscow or St. Petersburg. The remainder
of the country lacks access to balanced news outlets.

11. (SBU) Richter painted a more distressed situation regarding
broadcast journalism, in large part because the Duma has not passed
any legislation governing the use of public airwaves. Richter said
that as a result of this vacuum, only a presidential decree governs
the distribution of spectrum and the regulation of television
content. Moreover, the government organization that regulates
broadcasting serves mainly at the pleasure of the president; not
only are the heads of this organization, Rossvyazokhrankultury,
appointed by the president, but the organization can be changed
fairly easily by presidential proclamation. He characterized
Rossvyazokhrankultury as "very political" and capricious in its
decisions, since it can issue official warnings to broadcast

MOSCOW 00004807 003.2 OF 003

outlets, and these warnings cannot be appealed in court. After two
such warnings, the agency can close a given outlet.

12. (SBU) Richter noted that the Supreme Court has aided the cause
of press freedom. The court ruled that lower courts must
differentiate between fact and opinion in all press cases. As a
result, journalists can no longer be punished for editorial content.
Also, the court indicated that public figures, by virtue of their
positions, can be subject to greater press criticism that other
people. Finally, Richter noted that the Supreme Court ordered lower
courts also to consider the importance of media freedom when
deciding a case.


13. (SBU) Discussions with human rights experts illustrate the
complex and nuanced aspects of Russia's difficult development path.
Corruption in Russia poses significant challenges to Russians and
those living or doing business in the country and it is difficult to
predict how (or if) the government can meet this challenge.
Moreover, there seems to be little political will to establish a
legal framework that would strengthen media freedoms -- particularly
over the coming months of the electoral season. The bright spot
appears to be religious freedom issues; ironically, all groups
appear to be equally disadvantaged by the heavy burdens of the

© Scoop Media

World Headlines


Abu Akleh Shooting: Fatal Shot Came From Israeli Forces, Says OHCHR
Israeli forces were behind the fatal shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank - not indiscriminate Palestinian firing - the UN human rights office, OHCHR, alleged on Friday... More>>

Ethiopia: Conflict, Drought, Dwindling Food Support, Threatens Lives Of 20 Million

Hunger is tightening its grip on more than 20 million Ethiopians who are facing conflict in the north, drought in the south and dwindling food and nutrition support beginning next month, the UN food relief agency warned on Thursday... More>>

Euro Med Monitor: Syria Cross-border Aid Mechanism Extension Is Necessary For The Survival Of Millions

Permanent members of the UN Security Council should extend the cross-border aid to northwestern Syria, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said Tuesday in a statement...

UN Ocean Conference: Opens With Call For Urgent Action To Tackle Ocean Emergency
With climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution exacting a devastating toll on the world’s ocean — critical to food security, economic growth and the environment... More>>

World Vision: Deeply Concerned For Thousands Affected By Afghanistan Quake
World Vision is deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan in the wake of a powerful earthquake in the early hours of this morning... More>>

Malaysia: UN Experts Welcome Announcement To Abolish Mandatory Death Penalty

UN human rights experts* today commended an announcement made by the Malaysian government that it will abolish the country’s mandatory death penalty and encouraged Parliament to take concrete steps to pass the agreement into law... More>>